What is a scientist without mathematics?

imageThe question that makes up my blog title is a quote from a colleague at school, someone who has many dealings with applications to HE. It took me a number of weeks after he uttered those words to admit to him that I am exactly that, a scientist without mathematics, or at least without a post-16 formal qualification in maths. In my work at the transition point between school and HE it seems I am breaking some kind of taboo in admitting this…

Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against maths; I actually quite like maths! I was in top set for my GCSE maths but it never really crossed my mind to take A level. Like many 16 year olds I had no idea what I wanted to study at university, so I picked the subjects I enjoyed the most since I had the luxury of being an academic all rounder. I did A levels in biology, chemistry, history and French, confident that they would open more doors than they closed.

I’m not sure when the academic chemistry community started to get so agitated about the ‘maths issue’. Maybe I was spectacularly clueless compared to today’s students but I just remember being told I would have to do some extra maths classes in my degree and kind of just got on with it…. I turned into an organic chemist and that’s probably no coincidence, but I certainly don’t remember my lack of maths being a huge issue.  Nowadays there seems to be a perpetual debate about the need for A level maths to do a chemistry degree, almost always lead by the physical chemists. To my knowledge there are only two pure chemistry courses that specify the need for A level maths, Oxford and Durham. For the rest of us, Russell group include, it’s a compromise between A grades and a maths requirement. I mean once you get rid of the medics/dentists/vets/Oxbridge/Durham crowd, just how many 18 year olds with AAA including maths are there left? Is the need for maths greater than the need for a chemistry grade A and enthusiasm and interest in the subject? Surely a capable student should be able to get up to the required level in maths with the right support anyway?

While I am on the subject of maths I would like to say that I do support increased uptake of maths in the post-16 qualifications landscape but I don’t think that has to mean only the AS/A-level maths route. For a good number of years there has been a pretty good alternative in the AS ‘use of maths’ qualification which is a Functional Skills Mathematics Qualification (FSMQ) teaching maths in context. This has modules in calculus and graphical handling that are particularly relevant in chemistry and would be very useful to schools and colleges who run a ‘maths for scientists’ type of course. It may also be useful in encouraging greater uptake of post-16 maths for girls who are less likely to take the full A level.

In the meantime however I will continue to listen to statements such as ‘to be a successful chemist you need A level maths’ and let them have their rant until I (nicely) point out that I don’t have A level maths….

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