Plus Blog

February 1, 2007
Thursday, February 01, 2007

Maths and science: Hugely important but poorly understood

A recent poll conducted in the US by Research!America showed that while US citizens feel that public understanding of maths and science is poor, they are well aware of its importance. The vast majority (85%) recognise that maths and science are very important, but over half (52%) feel that the US isn't performing as well as other nations in maths and science education. Maybe surprisingly, 87% rate being a scientist as one of the most prestigious careers, yet 75% can't name a living scientist. Sixty-four percent don't think average Americans are knowledgeable about science, and 76% think it is very important that young people are encouraged to pursue scientific careers, and that more opportunities for these careers are created.

Most people questioned felt that scientific advances in the medical and health sector were the most important to society, but many recognised that research in this area depended on maths (56%) and other maths based fields including computer science (62%), physics (58%) and engineering (49%).

A huge majority (97%) recognised that science research is important to the US economy and 94% also saw that it can create jobs and higher incomes. Global issues also scored highly with 67% seeing scientific research as very important in addressing global warming and 61% in eliminating poverty and hunger around the world.

And, interestingly for Plus, 70% wanted more media coverage of science and research.

"To address today's unprecedented opportunities in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics workforce, we must retool our education system to educate our young people in math and science more effectively and nurture the innate abilities of all young people, regardless of gender or race, to enter a STEM field of study," concluded Arden Bement, the director of the US National Science Foundation.

posted by Plus @ 12:19 PM


At 6:11 PM, Blogger Bill said...

"Maybe surprisingly, 87% rate being a scientist as one of the most prestigious careers..."
Maybe (not surprisingly) the crux of the problem lies in the fact that in the United States no one considers "being a teacher" is prestigious.

No comments yet
January 31, 2007
Wednesday, January 31, 2007

The gender issue

Would you like to become a mathematician, or rather stick to being a woman? There are of course many people who are both, and very successful ones at that, but the fact remains that women are still under-represented in maths-based careers and degree courses. They are also twice as likely to drop out of maths-based careers as men. Now a new study suggests that this may be due to the strain a maths environment puts on women's self-perception; a strain that works through unconscious gender stereotypes.

In an article published in the January issue of Psychological Science, psychologists Amy Kiefer of the University of California, San Francisco, and Denise Sekaquaptewa of the University of Michigan report on a study they carried out on undergraduates that were enrolled in an introductory calculus class. They rated women's implicit gender stereotypes, for example by checking if they automatically associated "male" with maths ability, and their self-perception, for example by asking if they identified themselves as feminine. They then followed their performance independently of the maths ability they had displayed previously.

The researchers found that the worst performers were those that had strong implicit gender stereotypes and were likely to identify themselves as feminine. This may seem unsurprising, but the important point is that the women's stereotypes were unconscious: the majority of women taking part in the study had explicitly stated that they do not believe that men are better at maths than women.

Another interesting point is the extent to which under-performance seems to be linked to gender identification. The authors suggest that this may give some insight into the high drop-out rate of women in maths-based careers. Women may feel that to be in tune with their work environment, they need to distance themselves from feminine characteristics. And the more they value these characteristics, the bigger the sacrifice that this involves, so that even women who are very good at what they do may come to leave their field.

It's sad to see how deep-seated women's stereotypes about their own abilities are, but there is hope. In recent decades women's participation in maths and science has increased drastically. There are many highly successful women mathematicians that can serve as role models. And once a critical mass has been reached, even the most ingrained stereotype can be overturned by experience.

posted by Plus @ 3:08 PM


At 1:37 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi!, I am Sarah-Jane and I am an Intersex-46xx Woman. I have a phd in nuclear physics and have never had a problem with the three 'R's. I believe it is because we are indeed steretyped by a stereotypical society and because of this we are continually compartmentalised into believing what we can and can not do. As a feminist of the seventies I fought my family and socity to do what I wanted to do and dd not take s*** from anyone. We all have to be who we know ourselves to be and then we can be honest with ourselves to give us the strength to achieve what we ourselves are inside of us. I only broke free when I realised the only one holding me back was me. This pi**** me off and gave me the strength form within to succeed. We are only held back by are inability to realise our own ambitions....

No comments yet
January 23, 2007
Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Mathematical Moments - Harald Bohr

Died 56 years ago: Harald August Bohr

Born: 22nd of April 1887 in Copenhagen, Denmark
Died: 22nd of Jan 1951 in Copenhagen, Denmark

Harald Bohr must be the only mathematician who came to fame through football: as a member of the Danish national team he won a silver medal at the 1908 Olympics in London. Although it's hard to imagine these days, back then you could still pursue a sports career in your spare time, and by the time Bohr took part in the Olympics, he had already spent four years doing a maths degree at the University of Copenhagen. His sporting success gained him celebrity status in Denmark and when he defended his doctoral thesis after the games, the audience reportedly contained more football fans than mathematicians.

Eventually, though, his interest in maths gained the upper hand and he became a professor of mathematics at the Polytechnic Institute in Copenhagen in 1915, moving on to the University of Copenhagen in 1930. He was interested mainly in the application of analysis to number theory. Together with Edmund Landau he proved some major results about the Riemann zeta function, which lies at the heart of the famous Riemann hypothesis. Although their work contributed two important steps towards its solution, no-one has yet been able to fill in the remaining details — the problem is still unsolved and bugs mathematicians to this day.

But if Bohr's name rings a bell in your brain, it's probably not because of his football stardom, or because of his own excellent contribution to maths, but because of his famous brother Niels. Niels Bohr won the 1922 Nobel Prize for physics for his insights into the structure of atoms and for his work on radiation, and was one of the founding fathers of quantum mechanics. Although Niels takes most of the posthumous limelight, Harald's contribution to maths was nonetheless remarkable, gaining him international recognition as one of the most prominent Danish mathematicians of the twentieth century.

But Harald Bohr's life wasn't all maths. His generosity towards people in need, especially those fleeing the Nazi regime in Germany, gained him just as much international acclaim as his work.

You can read more about the brothers Bohr on the MacTutor History of Mathematics Archive:

Find out more about the Riemann hypothesis in the following Plus articles:

posted by Plus @ 10:55 AM


No comments yet
December 27, 2006
Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Science in School - the best in science teaching and research

The third issue of the magazine Science in School is just out, and as usual is a fascinating read about all areas of science. Plus particularly enjoyed Richard West's reminiscences of discovering a comet, and the articles on the power behind the Sun and the advances of Muslim scientists during the Dark Ages in the West.

Science in School aims to promote inspiring science teaching across Europe. It's published quarterly, and you can either subscribe to the printed edition or read it free online at

posted by Plus @ 11:39 AM


No comments yet
December 8, 2006
Friday, December 08, 2006

BETT 2007 - come and say hello to the Plus team!

Always a firm date in the educational diary, BETT 2007, 10-13 January, Olympia, London, promises to showcase a wealth of new technologies, innovative ideas and the latest advice.

The MMP's stand this year is S69 in the Grand Hall Gallery, so if you're visiting BETT, come and say hello to Plus and the rest of the staff from the MMP.

posted by Plus @ 5:50 PM


No comments yet
November 30, 2006
Thursday, November 30, 2006

Stats goes independent

In the recent Queen's Speech to Parliament there was one point that went largely unnoticed, but that may drastically alter the nature of political argument: the government's plan to set up an Independent Statistics Board. The board will "reinforce the independence, integrity and quality of statistics produced in government". So why is this necessary? As always with statistics, it's not necessarily their quality that gives cause for concern, but their presentation. At the moment, the Office of National Statistics reports straight to ministers — and ministers get hold of the outcomes of statistical surveys and studies ahead of everyone else. So what reaches us when results are released is not just the numbers, but also the ministers' interpretation of them.

With the proposed Statistics Board in place, ministers would no longer get these sneak previews. Statistics would not only be produced, but also analysed and interpreted by independent experts that have no links with policy makers. Their interpretations would be understandable for the general public. Politicians, who would get the results at the same time as everyone else, would find spinning them a whole lot harder than they do now. Statistics are a critical measure of a government's performance on pretty much everything, including health, education and the economy. They are a crucial tool in political debate. So, who knows — maybe politics is just about to get more honest.

To find out more read the Treasury's press release or listen to this episode of the BBC 4 programme More or less, or, if you're very brave, read the government's consultation document.

posted by Plus @ 12:19 PM


No comments yet