Convincing prospective and current undergraduates that biology is a quantitative subject.

One area of strong consensus amongst those teaching maths for bioscience degree courses is the need to convince new undergraduates in the biosciences that maths is important and useful in biology. By extension there is also a need for better advice and influence in schools to show students and their teachers the important roles that maths plays in bioscience, not just statistics as is a common preconception, but maths in general. There is a lot of material on the internet but I guess finding it all is more than half the battle.

 So of the pool of A level students, how many of them have studied science and how many of them have studied maths as well?

 According to the Royal Society’s report released this week http://royalsociety.org/State-Nation-Increasing-Size-Pool/  roughly half of those who took one or more core sciences also took A level maths. If you look at those students who studied A level biology (either alone or with another science) only 40% of them also took A level maths. These figures refer to students in England and similar patterns are seen in Wales and Northern Ireland. Interestingly in Scotland students are much more likely to have taken maths alongside science in Scottish Highers.

 [Raw data on p64 of report: 13.3% of 16-18 year olds took one or more core sciences at A level without also taking A level maths whilst in comparison 14.4% took one or more core sciences with A level maths.]

 So it was interesting to see that one of the recommendations in the Royal Society’s report was to move towards a system where students take a broader range of subjects rather than being restricted to (mostly) 3 A levels. If many of the students who currently take sciences at A level without maths could be persuaded to take at least AS maths then this would be an enormous improvement. AS maths introduces students to calculus and logarithms which are two really key mathematical concepts not covered at GCSE. It also reinforces the algebra they learned at GCSE so they are generally more confident and they are more familiar with using scientific notation.

Unfortunately there isn’t any analysis of the numbers of students currently taking AS maths with the A2 core science A level(s) as the report comments that the data relating to AS-levels is unreliable (p49, section 4.3.3.3).

 Hmm… so how many science engineering ambassadors going to schools are biologists keen on maths???

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