It just doesn’t add up: why do so many people, including scientists, get stuck on the maths problem?
The subject is on my mind because it was raised at a departmental meeting last week where I tried to argue that A level mathematics (the qualification obtained at age 18 in the UK) should be an entry requirement for our degree programmes in biochemistry and biology. Given the increasingly quantitative nature of these subjects, I ventured, we need to be taking on students who are comfortable with maths.
The GCSE maths qualification obtained at age 16 is adequate for general arithmetic skills and a grasp of elementary algebra but does not cover many concepts that are useful in the life sciences, such as exponentials, logarithms, simple calculus (first order differentiation and integration), trigonometric functions or — a particular favourite of this X-ray crystallographer — the use of complex exponentials to represent waves. I know this because my daughter is preparing for her GCSE Maths exam next month and I have seen the practice papers.
My view is that we cannot rely on GCSE qualifications in maths to equip our students for a 21st Century university curriculum in the life sciences (or indeed any science). Biology and biochemistry may once have been largely descriptive disciplines but those days are gone. For more and more areas in the life sciences — enzyme kinetics, molecular interactions, bioinformatics, genetic inheritance, population dynamics to name just a few — a proper understanding requires maths skills significantly beyond GCSE level. (To say nothing of providing aesthetic appreciation of the mathematical foundation of so many living curves and curls.)
Unfortunately I did not prevail. In part I think there is reluctance to impose A level maths as an entry requirement because it would restrict the pool of applicants. Many students who do biology or chemistry at A level don’t take maths. In fact, of those students who study for A levels in the UK, only about 25% do maths. Worryingly for our science and engineering base, this is one of the lowest figures among developed nations.
That figure is probably not surprising to many people: the aversion to maths is commonplace and the refrain “I’m no good at maths” is heard up and down the land. But what has surprised me recently is the realisation that the aversion is so often also shared by scientists, a discovery that underscores the extent of the problem while at the same time pointing to a solution.
I have been interviewing life scientists for an upcoming video project and, though the sample is too small to be statistically significant, almost all have confessed to finding maths difficult or even distasteful, at least at the outset in their careers. Even TV’s favourite physicist Brian Cox was no friend of mathematics at school — by his own admission he only scraped a D at A level.
Nevertheless, each of these people faced down their mathematical demons on the way to becoming scientists; some of them now do daily battle with serious numbers and formulae. Why is that? Are these scientists the exceptions, the ones who persevered despite a lack of affinity for maths? How many others fell by the wayside?
I don’t know the answer to these questions though the testimony of the scientists reveals that motivation is the key. You have to be able to see the relevance of maths before you can rouse yourself to get stuck in. I experienced this in my physics degree during a maths lecture on Fourier Theory, which shows that any mathematical function can be represented as a sum of sines and cosines. Neat, I thought, but so what? Perversely, the lecturer omitted to make any connection with physical reality, even though Fourier himself only developed this mathematical tool to solve the problem of understanding heat conduction along an iron bar. Only later when I learned the relevance of Fourier Theory to my beloved X-ray diffraction did I really get to grips with the maths.
The abstractive power of maths is its greatest strength but can also be its undoing: the subject is too easily seen as alienating and therefore provides a ready excuse for students to give up. Is the apparent unreality of the subject also the source of the feeling that it is difficult? Perhaps so, but Cox suggested a useful remedy for that mindset, comparing the ability to do maths with the ability to play the piano. No-one expects to be able to sit down at the piano and just play. You have to practise.
And so it is with maths. But for some reason many people don’t realise the bit about needing to practise. Cox only cottoned on to it at university (and went on to get a first class degree in physics) so perhaps we shouldn’t be too hard on school students. But I do think we need to find a way to learn the lesson earlier, so that a greater number of our students might embrace the subject, and be more fearless in the face of science and engineering.