Since he was three years old, Alex Gunning has had a passion for maths. In mid-July Alex placed 4th in the world in the International Maths Olympiad in Thailand, bringing his Australian team to rank 6th out of 104 countries, the best Australia has done in the competition’s history.
“I have never wanted to be told how to do maths questions,” says Alex, now a year 12 student at Glen Waverley Secondary College, a comprehensive high school in Melbourne. “I have always enjoyed figuring the process out for myself from a very early age.”
His teammate, Seyoon Ragavan, a year 11 student at Knox Grammar in Sydney, shares his excitement. “When I am working on a problem, using a multitude of steps, and then the moment it falls into place, that single moment of clarity gives me an incredible kick,” he says.
Unfortunately, this enthusiasm for maths is not contagious among Australian students. In fact, in NSW the number studying advanced or extension maths in the HSC has dropped by nearly a quarter in the past 15 years, while at university the figure for maths undergraduates and postgraduates is stagnant.
To address this, the federal government is trying to revitalise maths and science education. Researchers at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS), led by Dr Anne Prescott, are among the recipients of $16 million worth of grants from the Department of Education and Training, spread across 14 universities.
“With our project, we are taking abstract mathematical ideas which students might think ‘who cares?’ about and making them relevant and real in their lives,” says Dr Prescott, whose team includes Dr Mary Coupland, Dr Stephen Bush and Professor Sandy Schuck.
Australia’s international maths standing is also slipping backwards; in the past 12 years Australia has dropped from 2nd to 17th place in the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA). This telling evidence has also spurred the Chief Scientist, Professor Ian Chubb, to focus on teachers.
“The starting point is the classroom with inspiring teachers who need to be supported through all stages of their training and careers,” Professor Chubb says. “The goal must be to make the subject so compellingly well taught that students want to study mathematics.”
The UTS project, “Maths inside: Highlighting the role of mathematics in society as motivation to engage more in mathematics”, aims to do that. It includes a close collaboration with the CSIRO which is producing videos about cutting-edge research.
The Australian Association of Mathematics Teachers (AAMT) will incorporate these videos into lesson plans for years 8 to 12. Dr Prescott’s team will then monitor their effectiveness in a pilot program in 50 to 60 schools in NSW.
One video explains how CSIRO’s Zebedee – the world’s first hand-held 3D laser mapping system – is a real-world application of trigonometry and scale drawings. With Zebedee, scientists have created immersive 3D maps of Italy’s Tower of Pisa, the Cliefden caves in central western NSW, and a wrecked WWII submarine in Port Phillip Bay in Victoria.
Another project shows the practical application of ratios. This involves the world’s biggest aerial minke whale survey in the Southern Ocean where CSIRO researchers found a significant decrease over two years.
Even at this early stage, Dr Prescott is experiencing success: “Teachers are very positive about the videos. We are seeing an exciting shift in their thinking when we show them what can be done,” she says. “The videos will eventually be available to all Australian teachers and, in fact, any teacher internationally will also be able to upload them free from the AAMT website.”
Dr Prescott and her team hope the project will also alleviate some students’ anxiety or phobia about maths – a real fear often developed in primary school when teachers rebuff a student’s concern about maths. In addition, it should debunk the myth that people have a maths brain or a maths gene, proving that everyone can learn and enjoy the subject.
“Instead of students knowing what to expect every maths lesson – just more drill and practice – with these videos we want to bring some of the mystery back into learning and hope to engage thousands of students,” Dr Prescott says.