Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Great Expectations

Most academic mathematicians love mathematics, and in their teaching they try to pass on their wonder at the beauty, subtlety, ubiquity, relevance and <add your preferred adjective here> of the subject. Once upon a time, when only 7% of the population went to univerisity, they might have expected their students to share this vision and appreciate the technical minutiae that so tickle them. Below is an example of how not to do this.

At the IMA Strategy Review Meeting last weekend I had a fascinating conversation (OK, I'm a mathematician!) with Neil Challis of Sheffield Hallam who has been surveying students about their attitude to mathematics and their degree. The students came from both Russell Group and post-1992 universities, and Neil concluded that whilst they were a diverse lot, certain common themes came through:
  • Their prime motivation was to get a good degree so as to get a good job (with a minimum of study).
  • They chose mathematics because they were good at it (or couldn't get onto a Business Studies course) and thought it would be the easiest path to a degree.
  • They were more concerned about passing exams than learning mathematics.
Of course, there are still examples of geek chic, but this was the majority opinion. These attitudes pose questions about how and what we teach, and how this connects with student expectations. I have two observations.

1. In the light of changing funding mechanisms, how long can the disjunction between what academics think they are doing when they are teaching and what most students actually want from their teachers continue to exist? And who will blink first?

2. What does it mean for the discipline if the vast majority of students who graduate in mathematics do so having been told (albeit subliminally) by many of their teachers that they are not good mathematicians because they do not care about mathematics in the way their teachers expect them to care about it.

I worry particularly about the second point. If we want mathematics to be as influential as it ought to be we need advocates within society. The natural advocates are maths graduates, and if we alienate and belittle them then what does it say about us as mathematics teachers, and what chance do we have of gaining our graduates' support when we need it?

Neil has promised to send me a copy of his report -- I look forward to reading it in more detail.

Friday, 4 March 2011

Dream-on Fellowships

The EPSRC has established a new fellowship scheme: Dream Fellowships, to support innovative researchers across their remit. As they say:
The prestigious Dream Fellowship award enables talented researchers to take time out from their every day activities, to give them the freedom to gain new knowledge of novel creative problem solving techniques, explore new radical ideas and develop new ambitious research directions that enable discovery.

These awards fit the developing EPSRC strategy in two ways: funding people (leaders) rather than projects, and having innovative reviewing mechanisms. Thus
EPSRC programme teams identify a list of potential candidates. This list is validated using independent assessors. Candidates on the validated list are invited to apply to EPSRC for a Dream Fellowship by filling in a short application form. These applicants are interviewed by an independent selection panel which includes international representation and the relevant Head of Programme.
Only a select few awards – 2 or 3 each programme - will be made to the top calibre candidates.

I know two of the mathematicians approached. Both are great people and great researchers, though it is likely that they were identified by the size of their grant holdings rather than their international reputations (as there are many others in the community who would have fitted the latter definition) and both have records of cross-disciplinary research (though this is only hinted at in the announcement through the word impact).

But though 2 or 3 awards are expected from each programme, I gather (though not confirmed yet) that none will be awarded in mathematics. Is this a reflection of the health of mathematics in the country or does this mean that even the most EPSRC-engaged mathematicians struggle to meet the short-term impact (unspoken) criteria for support?

I leave that delicate question as an exercise for the reader. Use your....