Three reasons to stick with maths

The numbers of secondary school students who take higher-level maths and science are low in Australia. In 2012, there were  30,000 more Year 12 students  than in 1992. But the numbers of students studying physics, chemistry and biology decreased by 8,000, 4,000 and 12,000 respectively.

Enrolments in intermediate and advanced mathematics also  fell over this period , by 11 percent and seven percent respectively.

The Australian Curriculum  mandates maths  until Year 10. But we’re seeing more students dropping the subject as soon as they can.

In 2008, 31.2 percent of the NSW student population were studying maths for the High School Certificate, compared to 28.9 percent in 2017. This was a  drop of around  5,300 students.

But studying maths brings many benefits. Here are three reasons to persevere.

1. You’ll be more likely to get a job

Many industry and economic  experts predict  future economies - specifically those using technology to rapidly create goods and services - will be built on maths and science knowledge and skills.

Research on the changing nature of employment predicts that, by 2030, we will  spend 77 percent more time  on average using science and mathematics skills. With youth (people aged 15-24)  unemployment in Australia on the rise , maths skills may offer some protection.

There are more engineering jobs in Australia than skilled people to fill them. Between 2006 and 2016, the demand for engineers exceeded the number of local graduates. Employers  often look overseas  for suitable applicants, with some figures showing more vacancies are filled by overseas engineering graduates than locals.

2. You’ll probably earn more

Some studies have shown students taking higher maths at school  go on to have higher earnings  in adulthood.

The relationship between studying higher-level maths and earning more may be one of causation (that maths skills lead to higher earners), correlation (that people with good maths skills are more likely to have other skills that lead to higher earnings), or a bit of both. But, either way, it exists.

According to  US analysis  that compared university majors with median starting pay, median mid-career pay (at least ten years in), growth in salary and wealth of job opportunities, maths and engineering majors reigned supreme.

And a more  recent analysis  by the US data researcher PayScale found graduates in maths, science and engineering had the highest mid-career salary.

One of the biggest gender gaps in education is seen in maths. Girls in most countries complete less, or lower level, maths than boys.

The low numbers of girls participating in advanced maths courses is not because girls are worse at maths, as there is  no clear gender gap  when it comes to maths abilities. But girls do  show less confidence  in their maths skills and more maths anxiety than boys.

Research suggests learning maths is often associated with  student anxiety. This anxiety is related to poor performance, negative attitudes and general avoidance of the  subject. If girls were encouraged to persist with the challenges presented by advanced levels of maths, we could even see a start to  a narrowing of  the gender wage gap.

3. You’ll probably be smarter

A study examined the  association between intelligence and educational achievement  in relation to 25 secondary school subjects in the UK. It showed maths was most strongly associated with the so-called "g" factor, which is a  mark of underlying intelligence  (English came second).

The g factor, or general ability, is the foundation of cognitive abilities and affects all learning, including in maths and science. Graduates in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics)  disciplines report  their degrees led to them developing higher-order skills and qualities (such as logical thinking and creativity).

Another study showed an increase in population IQ  alongside a rise  in access to maths education in the US. Studies show higher levels of maths attainment for a population are strongly linked to  national IQ  and national shifts in economic development, such as  higher GDP  and faster  economic growth.

A higher g factor is also associated with higher scores on international assessments of educational attainment, such as  PISA and TIMSS, and IQ tests.

As the Australian system doesn’t require maths after Year 10, it seems it is up to individuals, families and their communities to recognise its importance and support students in persevering in maths for their own good.

This article first appeared in The Conversation , written by the University of Sydney’s  Dr Rachel Wilson and Deborah Chadwick.

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