In our increasingly technological world the role of mathematics holds centre stage. We all use maths every day, often without realising it. Machines and computers hide the details from us the way the panels of a car hide its working parts. In order for our cars to work properly we need people who can make them and fix them, but we also need to know enough about cars ourselves to pick when something needs attention. The same is true of mathematics.

What do mathematicians do?

Well obviously, they work with numbers. They also look for patterns, solve problems, make predictions and delve into the mysteries of the universe. Mathematicians work for banks, insurance companies, mining companies, in manufacturing, transport, health and medical research. Without mathematicians there would be no GPS for our cars, no internet, no telephone networks, no television or radio. In short, mathematics is everywhere and so are mathematicians.

There aren’t very many jobs advertised for mathematicians? Why not?

Studying mathematics provides students with a broad range of skills and knowledge that are highly valued in a wide range of careers in the workforce. While the titles of most advertisements rarely use “Mathematician” the job descriptions often refer to “strong maths skills” or “well developed analytical and problem solving abilities”. It is these skills and abilities that employers are looking for in fields as diverse as Finance, Manufacturing, Transport and Logistics, Health, Advertising and Professional Sporting organisations. AMSI, in partnership with Deakin University produces a Maths Ad(d)s booklet each year that highlights the broad scope of opportunities that become available
with a mathematics background. Click here to download a copy of the latest Maths Ad(d)s booklet.

The university course my child wants to do does not require maths. Why should he/she choose a mathematics subject in year 11 or 12?

Just because mathematics is not listed as a pre-requisite does not mean that there is no mathematical content in the degree. Universities are businesses competing for customers, in this case students to enrol with them. Making the entry requirements just a little bit easier makes some courses more appealing or popular than others. Once a student has enrolled though, they will still have to learn the mathematical knowledge and skills. And they will have to learn it at the same time as all the other new ideas in the course, putting themselves under more stress and pressure than if they had first seen it in high school.
Alternatively, students who do not take the appropriate high school subjects will take longer to complete their degree and have to sign up for bridging courses to fill in the gaps. Even if this only adds a single year to their study it is one less year of being employed and earning a salary. The amount of this lost salary is equivalent to what they will be earning just before they retire which is significantly more than whatever they start at.

There are many jobs that don’t require a university degree. Why should my child consider studying mathematics beyond year 10 when it is not compulsory?

The workplace is always changing. The job we start in is very likely not the one we will finish in. Market forces and changes in technology mean that some jobs are fading away while new ones are being created. Over a typical fifty year working career people who continually increase their skills and abilities have more opportunities than those who don’t. Learning as much mathematics as you can gives you one way to make the most of opportunities as they arise.

Aren’t all the jobs that mathematicians have done in the past now being done by computers?

Computers only do what they are programmed to do. Without programmers and professionals to check that the computer results are correct errors are made, money is lost or stolen and sometimes lives are lost. The advent of computers requires more people in the population to be mathematically capable rather than less.

No one I know ever uses maths above year 10 level. What is the point of studying maths after this?

Most of us think “doing maths” means calculating answers using complicated equations. At school we do this by hand, or with the aid of a calculator. This is only one part of what mathematics is, and once we know how a calculation can be done we give it to a computer because computers are really good at doing calculations quickly and accurately.
This gives us more time to spend on the other aspects of what mathematics is: looking for new ways to use maths to solve problems and make contributions to society and economic well-being. For example, farmers and graziers are increasingly using the massive amounts of information available from the internet and satellites to help them plan long term strategies for how to produce food efficiently and economically. All of this relies on mathematics studied in senior secondary school and university.

The way maths is taught these days is so different to when I was at school. Why?

The way teenagers speak these days is different to when we were at school too. Part of this is just changes in the words used and the emphasis made on different parts of the process. In other cases a lot of research about what works best for learning mathematics has been done and it is these best practices that are being used in schools. A good teacher will be aware that there is almost always more than one way to perform a calculation or get an answer. It is valuable for students to realise this also. Talk to your child’s teacher about the differences and see how the two ways can be used together to enhance learning rather than make it harder.