Maths skills in decline among new engineering graduates

Mathematical skills are in decline among young graduates, according to a recent report. But some in the industry are questioning how much expertise in maths engineers need to have. The report, published by a group including the Engineering Council and the Institute of Mathematics, found many young people were starting engineering degrees without having acquired […]

Mathematical skills are in decline among young graduates, according to a recent report. But some in the industry are questioning how much expertise in maths engineers need to have.

The report, published by a group including the Engineering Council and the Institute of Mathematics, found many young people were starting engineering degrees without having acquired basic mathematics skills. These skills have been in significant decline for the past 10 years, the report reveals, and there are now serious mathematics deficiencies among school-leavers.

The report lays the blame for the decline in mathematics skills on recent changes to GCSE and A-level syllabuses, which have reduced the pure mathematics content of courses. The drop in the number of students taking mathematics at A-level, changes to the teaching profession in the UK, and a lack of time set aside for practice within the National Curriculum, have all exacerbated the situation, the report found.

Richard Shearman, deputy director for engineers’ regulation at the Engineering Council, said that while there was a question mark over how much engineers actually use particular skills during their careers, it was important to have the necessary understanding to underpin any technical expertise. `There is a certain level of mathematics knowledge required for a career in engineering,’ he said.

Declining maths skills are adding to the workload of university engineering lecturers under pressure to deliver complicated courses within deadlines, the report says. It suggests universities should introduce diagnostic tests for new undergraduates to help identify those students with weak mathematics skills.

But Duncan Michael, a vice-president of the Royal Academy of Engineering, said people should be less fixated with the idea that all engineers must have an A-level in mathematics.

He said that as engineers work in teams and are mostly connected via e-mail and the internet, the idea that they should all be educated identically was outdated. `Engineering collectively needs all the mathematics it can lay its hands on, but individual engineers are a different matter,’ he said.

Insisting every potential engineering student should have an A-level in the subject will not draw in the best available people, he said. `If you say engineers should all have a mathematics competency, you have completely excluded people with literacy and imaginative skills,’ he added.

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