The scoping project, Mathematics Education for 21st Century Engineering Students, funded by the former Carrick Institute for Learning and Teaching in Higher Education (now the Australian Learning and Teaching Council), was completed in March 2008.
The year-long study formed a picture of the rapidly changing field of engineering mathematics education. An extensive questionnaire was sent to representatives from engineering and mathematics at each of the 32 Australian institutions offering engineering degree programs, responses were received from 27. Issues and practices arising from this were further explored with site visits.
The project Director Prof. Philip Broadbridge also visited Loughborough University in the United Kingdom to look at the Helping Engineers Learn Maths (HELM) project, and the University of Delaware and Duke University in the United States for Modelling, Experiment and Computation (MEC) Lab and Laboratory Calculus courses respectively.
As part of the project, a National Symposium attracted over 80 participants, both in person and via a network of 16 Access Grid Rooms.
The symposium showcased innovative practice in the teaching of mathematics to engineering students. International speakers Dr Martin Harrison (Loughborough University) and Assoc. Prof. John Pelesko (University of Delaware) discussed the success of the HELM project and the MEC Lab.
The project’s final report documents the widespread agreement among academics and practising engineers that a good grounding in mathematics is essential for engineers. The widening diversity of the student body, lowering of the mathematics prerequisite for entry to engineering programs and the reduction of teaching modules for mathematics to make way for professional practice subjects have created new challenges for engineering mathematics educators. New techniques must be employed to engage and effectively educate the student body. The report explores methods of teaching and learning trialed in Australia and overseas, finding that it is essential to provide additional mathematics support for students, both to aid the transition from school to university and encourage students to complete extra mathematics practice. Computer aided assessment (both in-house and commercial software) can also provide students with additional mathematics practice that can be easily and quickly monitored by staff. Group learning has been seen to be an effective way to incorporate the teaching and learning of professional practice skills within science subjects.
While there is widespread disagreement about which mathematics topics should be included in the reduced number of mathematics subjects for engineering students and which teaching methods are most effective, this problem is minimised in institutions where the engineering department and the mathematics department have a formal joint committee that communicates openly and decides on a compromise mathematics curriculum. Joint ownership of the curriculum also helps to provide engineering applications that are a strong motivation for the study of mathematics. The study found some institutions that had dramatically improved their students’ ratings of mathematics instruction.
The report provides a coherent set of recommendations that build on innovations that were identified around the country to provide strategies to address the challenges identified. The project itself has benefited from an improved level of co-operation between mathematics educators and the engineering profession.
Henderson, S. and Broadbridge, P. (2009) Engineering Mathematics Education in Australia. MSOR Connections Vol 9 (1)
Henderson, S. and Broadbridge, P. (2007) Mathematics for 21st Century Engineering Students. Proceedings of the eighteenth Annual Conference of the Australian Association for Engineering Education