Thursday 21 September 2017

Stick with higher maths

UCD's Professor Mark Rogers
UCD's Professor Mark Rogers

Mark Rogers

As the first CAO deadline approaches, many students may be thinking about the effort required to stay with higher level mathematics in the Leaving Certificate.

It is as students begin the final stretch of study in the new year that confidence can begin to waiver. According to the Project Maths implementation Support Group, some 20pc of students will choose to switch between the higher and ordinary level mathematics in the coming months. Weighing the benefits of staying in the higher level against the effort involved and the possible risk of failure is always difficult particularly if the third level course doesn’t require higher level mathematics.

As we have been told by economists such as Professor Kevin Denny from UCD Geary Institute and as has been demonstrated by the recent HEA report on nonprogression of first year students in higher education, mathematical attainment is the single strongest indicator of likelihood to progress to second year.

This tells us that the effort undertaken by students taking higher level maths at secondary school pays off at third level, regardless of the degree being studied. Few degrees require honours maths as a prerequisite for entry. In degrees such as Actuarial & Financial Studies and in Engineering, this requirement is set because students taking these degrees need a high level of mathematical competence for the programme they will study at university.

Other degrees, such as Science and Computer Science, do not set honours maths as a requirement but there is no doubt that those with higher maths grades are more likely to do well and less likely to drop out or fail.

In UCD, we have recognised the benefits of studying subjects such as applied mathematics for the Leaving Certificate and accept it as meeting the requirement for a laboratory science subject for entry to Science.

Any academic who teaches and researches in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) areas will tell you that mathematics is always beneficial.

A good understanding of mathematics is essential for business, engineering and science. Courses such as business analytics, engineering, computer science, and physics include more mathematics than subjects such as chemistry, biology, agriculture and environmental sciences but an ability to analyse and interpret data and solve problems are skills graduates from all these disciplines require.

Possibly one of the most exciting emerging sciences is systems biology, which brings together mathematicians, computer scientists, molecular biologists and biophysicists. Systems biology uses mathematical models to create a framework that enables scientists to rationalise complex biological relationships such as the complex network involved in cell-to-cell communication.

The concept may seem complex but then again, so is nature. System biologists use their mathematical modelling techniques to improve their understanding of, for example, the signalling networks that govern stem cell functions and by so doing, these scientists aim to develop a new range of biomedical therapies for many diseases.

This partnership demonstrates the vast world of exploration that is open to students and graduates as they apply their knowledge to realworld problems and take on an interdisciplinary approach to studying complex biological systems.

National initiatives such as Project Maths should encourage more students to take higher level mathematics in the leaving certificate. Universities are playing their part. For example, UCD has implemented the UK Undergraduate Ambassador Scheme, which offers final-year mathematics undergraduates, or final-year undergraduates who have taken an appropriate level of mathematics, the chance to work with mathematics teachers and students in local secondary schools. This scheme offers assistance to secondary school mathematics teachers while encouraging undergraduates to consider teaching mathematics as a career.

All of the STEM degrees will benefit from a higher cohort of higher level maths students. In addition, industry and business from the ICT sector to banking and biopharmaceuticals will also welcome graduates with higher numeracy skills.

Whatever level of mathematics students decide to study for their Leaving Certificate, proficiency in this subject will better equip them to succeed at university and in life.

Professor Mark Rogers, is Dean of Science at UCD

Irish Independent

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