You do the maths: engaging with the abstract world of numbers

By Frank Bolger - Last update

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The ongoing development and continued growth in the areas of science, engineering and technology has generated an overwhelming sense of urgency among students to commit to the difficult and abstract world of mathematics.

In order to incentivise putting in the kind of effort and application that the subject generally demands, bonus points for higher Leaving Certificate maths were introduced last year. Students who pass their higher-level maths exam will be awarded with 25 additional points – a glittering bounty for the typical points-hungry Leaving Certificate student. With competition for college places so intense and points margins so tight, it is natural that any and every additional advantage will be seized upon.

This is a truth that has been borne out by the latest figures on subject participation in schools, which show that the number of students making the commitment to higher level maths has risen by well over two thousand. However, this ‘gold rush’ for points has had the knock-on effect of increasing the points demands for maths-heavy courses in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) subject areas.

The pressure being placed on students to enroll on courses with good employment potential seems to have therefore created something of a bottleneck effect with many applicants going for few opportunities. One must also wonder if there will be derogatory effects on those for whom the requirements of higher maths may be a step too far Is the preferential treatment of maths unfair to those without a natural aptitude or interest in the subject.

Another worry is that one sure way of dramatically deteriorating a teenager’s interest in a subject is by making that subject both compulsory and unrelatable. Maths is a subject that is rarely spoken about in the engaging way it deserves to be; instead, it is more often discussed as merely being the means to an end (which is, of course, the prospect of employment). An awareness of maths history and utility might be useful to encourage participation: how it is essential to calculating and predicting market trends and planetary movements, or even the graphics and special effects we enjoy in films and video games. It is as profound as it is common. As no less a man than Galileo once wrote:

‘The universe cannot be read until we have learned the language and become familiar with the characters in which it is written. It is written in mathematical language, and the letters are triangles, circles and other geometrical figures, without which means it is humanly impossible to comprehend a single word. Without these, one is wandering about in a dark labyrinth’.



Frank Bolger

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