There are consistent reports about the need to promote and fund Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) in Australian high schools.

Student engagement in STEM is critical if Australia is to remain a force in world affairs as the dependence of the world on the sciences, innovation, information technology, data and machines will continue to define and differentiate nations into the future. Therefore, schools must equip students with the necessary knowledge and skills for future prosperity –  Russian leader Vladimir Putin leaders highlights the importance of artificial intelligence to world domination. The world is fast turning to artificial intelligence to drive economies, improve the quality of life and project power. Consequently, the focus is on mathematics as it plays a central role in STEM.

The importance of mathematics in any education system has always been uncontested. Some sections of society are demanding the subject to be made compulsory while others are calling for it to be strengthened from P-10 through more student engagement, as not every student is required to study senior secondary mathematics.

However, calculus-based mathematics enrolments nationally are stagnating or declining in schools, despite advanced mathematics being a prerequisite for courses that involve Artificial Intelligence programmes.

Schools in Australia have a common national curriculum until Year 10, while the senior secondary school curriculum is the responsibility of states and territories.

Jurisdictions offer several mathematics options spanning advanced, intermediate, elementary and/or basic categories. However, some states like NSW, Victoria and ACT do not make the study of mathematics compulsory post Year 10.  For states like Queensland and Victoria both advanced (Specialist Mathematics) and intermediate (Mathematical Methods) are calculus-based options which offer distinct advantages for high school graduates, as mathematics plays an enabling role in STEM. After the introduction of a new curriculum in Queensland in 2019, reports emerged that students found calculus-based options too challenging.

While national student numbers in calculus-based mathematics is concerning, dropout rates are alarming. A recent study, presented at the 2021 Australian Association for Research in Education conference, found in Queensland state high schools, 9168 students in 2019 opted to study calculus-based subjects, however, 3213 dropped out by the end of 2020. Although, Covid-19 might have had an effect on the dropout rate, 3117 students dropped out by the end of 2019 before any lockdowns were implemented in Queensland.

The study used data from the Socio Economic Index for Areas (SEIFA), school ICSEA values and school transfer ratings to analyse trends in enrolments and dropout rates. Results show that schools in high socioeconomic areas such as the Central Brisbane region have high enrolments and less dropouts in calculus-based mathematics. On the other hand, rural, remote and low socioeconomic regions have low calculus-based mathematics enrolments and almost double the dropout rate.

Socioeconomic status and location are significantly contributing to a widening gap in inequality in Australia. As a result, education is becoming a source of promoting inequality. Importantly, the Australian Academy of Sciences in its 2015 report identified one of its objectives on innovation as “equal opportunities for people of all genders and all backgrounds to learn, work and achieve their full potential in science.”

The results from the research presented at AARE demonstrate how education is widening the gap as the high dropout rate in calculus-based mathematics in socioeconomically disadvantaged communities result in limited career opportunities post-secondary. Even though not too many students choose to study calculus-based mathematics, those who choose it in Year 11 need be supported to pursue their dreams regardless of their location and socioeconomic status.

David Chinofunga is a PhD Candidate in mathematics education at James Cook University


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