Australian Mathematical Sciences Institute (AMSI) Director, Professor Geoff Prince has warned that unfocussed subject choice is shutting school students out of the many career paths opening up in the fourth industrial revolution.
Professor Prince issued his warning following this week’s International STEM in Education Conference keynote by Australia’s Chief Scientist, Dr Alan Finkel which urged educators to rethink the message given to young Australians about the value and focus of mathematics as the foundation for science, technology and engineering (STEM).
Welcoming Dr Finkel’s comments, Professor Prince said it was time to quash the myth that keeping things broad maximises future employability.
“We know about the powerful opportunities opened by specialisation, particularly for mathematically equipped professionals and the growing demand for these skills. Lack of prerequisites and ATAR gaming are roadblocks in pursuit of these opportunities by young Australians.” says Professor Prince.
In his speech Dr Finkel used the orchestral analogy to illustrate the importance of specialists in collective achievement in commercial and social settings. An analogy that Professor Prince says perfectly captures the challenge facing mathematics and statistics. “Mathematics is akin to both the underlying and evolving musical knowledge required by every musician and to one of the virtuoso soloists,” says Professor Prince.
Professor Prince said that Dr Finkel’s focus on mathematics reflected its foundational role in enabling STEM specialisation. Current focus on broad skilling and high ATARs was reflected in the low engagement in the mathematics subjects needed for many STEM study pathways such as data analytics and engineering.
“Australia has recorded over two decades of historic lows in advanced maths participation, with only 7 per cent of Year 12 girls and 13 per cent of boys participating in the subject in 2016. Along with rampant out-of-field teaching in mathematics this represents a huge loss of opportunity for students and the Australian economy,” says Professor Prince.
The fear that specialisation narrows employment opportunities is fuelled by the perception that disciplines such as mathematics box students into academia through lack of industry transferrable skills.
“All our graduates should be literate, good communicators and able to work in teams. But this must be integral to their discipline training, not an end in itself. This is self-evident but the noise around “soft skills” is distracting us,” says Professor Prince.
Industry, says Professor Prince, knows it needs specialised mathematics skills but students are being sold a different story. We need to be transparent about the opportunities open to specialists and the avenues to complement this expertise with industry skills.
“If we keep encouraging students to study the lower maths and get a higher ATAR and pursue broad degrees to keep their options open, we’re going to slam the brakes on Australia’s STEM ambitions.” says Professor Prince.
Says Professor Prince, “we need to view education and application as complementary and show them there is a way to do both.”