Much has been written and said about the importance of quantitative skills in the science curriculum. Science students need to be able to understand the growing relevance of quantitative science in addressing the critical challenges we face. Science students and graduates need to be competent in applying mathematical and statistical reasoning when collecting, working with, and drawing conclusions from scientific data. This was agreed nationally by academics and relevant bodies, and articulated in the Threshold Learning Outcomes for the sciences.
Science students  need to be competent in applying mathematical and statistical reasoning when collecting, working with, and drawing conclusions from scientific data

Student views of quantitative skills

The good news is that science students also see the importance of quantitative skills. Students told us so in a recent survey involving 400 graduating science students.  When asked about various skills in the science curriculum, 89% agreed that quantitative skills were important, but only 67% thought they improved them over the 3 years of their science studies.

Mathematics under preparedness

The biggest challenge faced by science faculties is that we are taking in less mathematically literate students. The issue is complex. Very often the blame is put on the school system and their teachers. But universities are partly to be blamed for this. By removing or lowering the mathematics prerequisites for science courses, we have sent the message that maths is not really needed. Consequently less students take maths at school, and those who do take the easier maths that will get them a higher ATAR.

The place of quantitative skills in the curriculum – reality check

So, how do students develop the necessary quantitative skills in a science curriculum? What is the minimum they should know to succeed in their studies? What teaching and assessment opportunities are they given to catch up on what they missed out at school and further develop their skills to reach that threshold?

These were the questions asked of academics as part of an extension to the QS in science OLT funded project. They were work shopped at three large universities, focusing on a number of selected life sciences programs. We got around the table academics teaching the discipline as well as academics teaching first year units relevant to the programs, including mathematics, statistics and chemistry. 

We mapped out the presence of quantitative skills in the curriculum. Most importantly, we engaged in a frank conversation.  Here is what we found – most of it applicable beyond the life sciences:

The quantitative skills expected of students to undertake higher year life science units of study are much simpler than what is taught in a typical first year introductory-level statistics unit. 

Quantitative skills are widely present and assessed in majors. We had no difficulties in ticking the boxes to indicate their presence across units at all year levels. The mapping of quantitative skills looked healthy!

But this does not mean that all students learn and develop these skills to meet the desired threshold.  Learning is only superficial for many students.

Assessment structures are such that students can avoid learning quantitative skills. These skills are largely present in lab activities and reports, and the weaker students can rely on their peers.  Students can still pass their assessment tasks even if the application of quantitative skills is not present or incorrect.

Completion of first year quantitative unit prerequisites are generally not required for higher year science units, even when that is an option available within the course structure.  Fear that such prerequisites would attract less students (and hence have an impact on resources) seems to be the driver of these choices.

Teaching staff put student mathematical under preparedness in the too hard basket. They give up on the students who “cannot handle maths” and turn a blind eye on the issue. And so the avoidance of maths continues at university level.

The mathematical language used by mathematicians (who normally teach foundation maths/stats units) and discipline academics. This creates confusion in the weaker students who find it even more difficult to use quantitative skills in a different context. Conversation between the service departments and the serviced disciplines could easily solve this.

Where to from here?

There is much to be done to equip our science graduates with the quantitative skills we all agreed they should have. Of course, life would be much simpler if our students came to university with a sound mathematical skill base.

We can work on that front to make it happen. But each of us with responsibility of teaching science students should put in practice what we preach, in our own classrooms.

Our Chief Scientist has warned repeatedly that we need to change the attitude to mathematics in the education system—if the trend is not turned around Australia faces a bleak future. We as science educators all share the responsibility to address this problem.

Cristina Varsavsky is the Deputy Dean in the Science Faculty  @CVarsarvsky