Maths and minkes: developing a formula for better maths engagement

A minke whale breaching. Picture by Martin Cathrae on Flickr

A minke whale breaching. Picture by Martin Cathrae on Flickr

In summary: 
  • A UTS team has received $1.9m in funding under the Australian Maths and Science Partnerships Program (AMSPP)
  • The project will develop resources to help teachers bring maths to life for high school students and address the dwindling numbers of students taking advanced maths and science in school and university

Video interviews with scientists, a look into the maths of a mobile phone and "real science" applications, like keeping track of whale numbers, are among resources that will be created by a UTS team of academics to help high school teachers around the country bring maths to life for their students.

Made possible by a $1.9 million Australian Government grant under the Australian Maths and Science Partnerships Program (AMSPP), the project will address the dwindling numbers of students taking advanced maths and science in school and university.

A cross-faculty team of Dr Mary Coupland and Dr Steve Bush from Science, and Dr Anne Prescott and Professor Sandy Schuck from Arts and Social Sciences, have collaborated with CSIRO and the Australian Association of Mathematics Teachers (AAMT) to plan the project. The team was mentored by UTS Distinguished Professor Jim Peacock, AC FRS.

"To be frank, maths can be as dry as dust," says Anne Prescott. "But it doesn't have to be – it can be really exciting. This project will help teachers show students the relevance of maths and how we use it every day."

"Research into the decline of interest in advanced maths courses at high schools in Australia shows us that teachers and students are often unaware of the role that maths plays in many careers," says Mary Coupland. "This project is designed to address that gap, and ultimately we hope it will lead to more students doing maths, understanding maths, becoming maths teachers."

The project, titled "Maths Inside: highlighting the role of mathematics in society as motivation to engage more in mathematical activities", will develop inspiring case studies and stories of the mathematics used to solve real and pressing world problems along with lesson plans incorporating project work, use of classroom technology and inquiry-based learning models.

"For example, rather than traditional ways of teaching probability which generally involve predicting outcomes of games of chance, why not look at the real science being done by the CSIRO team counting minke whales in the Southern Ocean?" explains Prescott.

These resources will be made available for free and disseminated through the CSIRO Mathematicians in Schools program and via the AAMT website, and ongoing research will be conducted to evaluate their performance over the three-year funding period.  Other aspects of the project include the expansion of existing UTS projects that support students in the transition from school and TAFE to university.

The program has particular benefit for teachers and their students in rural areas, who often miss out on professional development opportunities. 

"Teachers, regardless of their location, need to know how to answer when students ask, 'When am I going to need this?'. This project offers them assistance with choosing interesting and creative classroom activities that will show them the maths inside modern inventions and modern life," says Anne Prescott.

The AMSPP was established following research by Australia's Chief Scientist in 2012 which revealed a significant decline in advanced maths and science courses being taken at high school, a trend which extends into university with declining enrolments in maths, science and engineering courses. UTS is one of ten universities to share in $16.4 million worth of funding under the program this round.