Maths failing engineering

June 2, 1995

The mathematical skills of students starting engineering degree courses are insufficient, and urgent action must to taken to prevent further deterioration, according to a wide-ranging study carried out by a clutch of leading professional bodies.

A key problem the study has found is the wide variability in the overall content of the A-level syllabuses of the various examinations boards. The study, carried out jointly by seven leading professional bodies including those representing chemical, civil, mechanical and electrical engineers, says that even a good A level grade pass in mathematics is no longer an assurance that students have mastered all the essential topics needed in engineering.

The report says that students with an A level pass in mathematics now enter higher education less well prepared in mathematics than the equivalent students ten years ago: "This is particularly evidenced in their lack of confidence at undertaking algebraic manipulation and in a reduction in their graphical skills. Their coverage of trigonometry, calculus and complex numbers is also significantly reduced and in some cases negligible."

Working group member, John Carroll, head of the electrical engineering division in the department of engineering at Cambridge University, said: "The most important thing is to ensure that we can stabilise the core knowledge skills at pre-university level. We also must have a much better idea of exactly what skills our students have when they come to us. At the moment many universities are having to work to the lowest common denominator. It is clear to me that the problem is getting worse not just in engineering but also physics and mathematics."

To provide an early indicator of the level of ability of students on engineering courses, Professor Carroll favours the setting of one mathematics paper which all engineering students would take in the first or second year, and which would have a common syllabus and level of difficulty.

The report also points to the widening range of GCSE assessment grades, reduction in pre-A level mathematical skills, continual changes in the GCSE syllabus in recent years and a mismatch between GCSE "output" and A level "input" as contributing to students' lack of command.

The study recommends that the fall in the number of candidates taking A-level mathematics needs to be reversed, possibly with the help of bursaries from industry. There is also a need to distinguish between the mathematical education required for chartered engineers and that needed by incorporated engineers, as part of an initiative "to reverse the downward drift in standards created by the general movement where all engineering courses, regardless of the ability of the intake, claim that they are providing education for chartered engineering status."

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