Kildare researcher gets to the heart of maths education

EMOTIONAL and social elements play a bigger role in the mathematical abilities of Irish engineers, a study by a Kildare scientist has found.

EMOTIONAL and social elements play a bigger role in the mathematical abilities of Irish engineers, a study by a Kildare scientist has found.

Celbridge-based Dr. Eileen Goold, a lecturer at the Institute of Technology in Tallaght has just completed a study on Irish engineers in conjunction with NUI Maynooth.

Dr. Goold has close links to Kildare having been one of the first six engineers to work 
with Intel when it set up in north Kildare in the late 1980s. “I recall going to Leixlip when there were horses on the land,” she said.

Helping prepare the first building was “fun and a great learning experience.”

Now a lecturer in Tallaght’s Department of Electronic Engineering, her experience and training includes study at UCC (primary degree) and University of Limerick (Masters) and a job – her first – at Analog Devices.

With much take and head scratching over Ireland’s mathematical skills, and its slipping in the international tables, it figured that a study might help provide some answers to problems.

Dr. Goold, and Dr. Frank Devitt, Head of Design Innovation at NUI Maynooth, did a study, effectively of the culture of maths.

The study, done with NUI Maynooth and Engineers Ireland found that the engagement of Irish engineers with maths has as much to do with emotion and social aspects as with rational intellect.

Most had a positive experience with maths at school and went for a numbers career because maths gave them “deep feelings of intellectual fulfillment and reassurance.”

Confidence and comfort in their own skills is key, said Dr. Goold. So too the ability to represent real-world situations in mathematical models as a way of helping design solutions to problems.

They found teachers were the most important thing in developing this confidence and comfort but parents, family friends and others played a role.

“It is clear there is a direct line connection from mathematics teaching at secondary schools all the way to availability of engineers in the economy,” said the Cork-born researcher.

They found that engineers used more or less maths on the job depending on their “emotional disposition” towards the subject.

That begged a question? Are engineers who use less maths at work less effective, diligent or rigorous than those who use?

Dr. Goold said this is not clear but the study found the broader use of mathematical thinking – tacit maths rather than the more explicit syllabus maths, which was of most value to engineers.

She said the new emphasis on Project Maths at second level is important but not enough to improve students performance and participation rates. “Good teachers are required,” she said.

In the study, engineers expressed concern about a number of issues in maths 
teaching including lack of encouragement where students feel they cannot do 
maths, an emphasis on rote learning 
rather than on understanding and on “unqualified” maths teachers “who are neither confident or positive in their teaching of mathematics.”

Dr. Goold and Dr. Devitt conclude: “The predominant characteristic of 
good mathematics teachers, which is the ability to communicate mathematics and its relevance, also challenges the Teaching Council’s consideration of engineers as unqualified to teach second level mathematics.”