It All Adds up for Maths Teachers

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JCU is again paving the way for universities in Australia as staff design a new mathematics subject for James Cook University’s Townsville Campus.

By Marion Walker-Campbell

Dr Shaun Belward, Senior Lecturer in Maths, of the School of Engineering and Physical Sciences, has worked closely over the past three years with Dr Jo Balatti from the School of Education to implement the new Maths subject beginning this semester.

Dr Belward says that typical Maths subjects fail to give Education students an in-depth understanding of the content.

“They go in the other direction and they build on what you already started with and take it to a higher level. Whereas what we’re trying to do is stay at the level but deepen the teachers’ knowledge of Mathematics,” Dr Belward said.

He said this is the first subject of its kind in Australia and the first time something like this has been attempted. He said that in creating this subject, universities will produce better quality Maths teachers once they leave Australian tertiary institutions.

MATHS GURU: Dr Shaun Belward

MATHS GURU: Dr Shaun Belward

“We are facing a very strong emphasis on the way we train our Maths teachers at JCU. We understand the direct link between capable Maths teachers and the students who come into the door of our institution to study most of the programs we offer, which would require some sort of Maths – particularly in the flagship areas such as Marine and Tropical Biology and Environmental Science and so on,” he said.

“Those academics in those schools see students come in underprepared out of the secondary school system, and this is our way of trying to address that problem locally.”

Dr Belward said he believes the skill set of the students coming in to tertiary study has declined in terms of their Mathematic skills.

A local senior Maths teacher in Townsville, who prefers not to be named, agrees with this statement, saying that attracting high-quality teachers to Maths, and teaching them the skills needed to teach the content effectively, would undoubtedly have a positive impact on student results.

The long-term senior school teacher also said the quality of upcoming Maths teachers in the industry is poor, as many students use Education degrees as a second preference career.

“There are still wonderful teachers coming through, but why would you be a Maths teacher when you could be an engineer, be far more respected in society and probably earn more money?” the teacher said.

“We aren’t attracting people who love the profession – we are attracting people who see it as their back-up plan.”

The numbers aren’t huge  Dr Belward said, but the number of students training to be Maths students isn’t huge either.

“It’s not a job that many people aspire to, however, what we have done is try to get the attention of students doing science degrees, and sort of dangling a carrot in front of them to get an idea as to what teaching Maths might be like,” he said.

“So there are people doing a science degree, and they would usually do a teaching degree after that, so their students are essentially getting a taster.”

First year Engineering student, Daniel Marais said he has been prepared adequately in the field of Maths, as he believes what he learned in high school is the same as what he is learning at University – only the subject content is extended. He feels he has all the fundamentals and this allows for him to understand the other topics.

“I think so far, what I did at school really helped me get through uni. They really go through things quickly, and I don’t think I would have done too well if it wasn’t for what I got taught at school, as I already had the background knowledge from doing Maths B and C,” Daniel said.

Franz Schnetler, another Engineering student, received distinctions in his first year for Maths and has similar views.

“I thought what I learned at school was fine. Some people just have an issue retaining that information and that’s their own fault, I don’t feel it’s the schooling systems fault,” he said.

“The same thing will happen to those people when they go to university – those same people won’t bother to retain the information.”

The subject has been in circulation for three weeks and Dr Belward said students are enjoying it so far.

“They like the different slant we are putting on the Maths. It’s different to any other Maths we offer at JCU.”