Article by Andrew Trounson, THE AUSTRALIAN
Andrew Mackenzie sees mathematics as a key to the nation’s future prosperity, and the head of global mining giant BHP Billiton has slapped $22 million on the table as a gesture of his sincerity.
Mr Mackenzie sees maths as a gateway to other subjects and is calling on universities to do what they can to promote the message to school students.
“Universities should emphasise that they want more of their students to have a strong grounding in mathematics all the way through secondary school,” the chief executive told the HES
Mr Mackenzie was speaking at the launch of a $22m donation from BHP Billiton to partner with the Australian Mathematical Sciences Institute in better promoting maths study and skills, especially among women, who are under-represented in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields.
His comments come as AMSI has been pressing universities to bring back hard prerequisites in courses requiring mathematics skills as a strong signal to school students to persevere with the subject through school. Many universities in recent years have replaced harder subject prerequisites with vague references to students needing “assumed knowledge” that isn’t assessed. Late last year, the University of Technology, Sydney said it would introduce from next year a compulsory maths subject for all first-year students. The course is aimed at fostering mathematical “critical thinking” in the face of concerns about falling numeracy standards.
The $22m donation will fund AMSI’s five-year Choose Maths program. The centrepiece will be funding for the professional development of teachers at 120 schools across the country to battle a shortage of qualified maths teachers. The money will also fund a national careers awareness campaign aimed at girls and women, as well as scholarships, awards and networking support.
AMSI director Geoff Prince said girls were taking up advanced level maths at school at only half the rate of boys. Part of the problem, he suspects, is that the subject is seen as relevant only to a career in engineering.
He said the message from universities was too often that advanced maths wasn’t needed.
“It is a very significant concern,” he said.
Mr Mackenzie is a former geologist, chemist and engineer. He said his strong maths background had helped him move successfully across careers, including moving from a technical background into finance and economics.
“Any increase in STEM participation is good news but an increase in female representation is especially valuable because of the undeniable benefits of diversity,” Mr Mackenzie said.