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Re-energising maths education

There has been a massive drop in the number of advanced mathematics students in the last decade, accompanied by poor results across all school years. Dr Elena Prieto-Rodriguez believes this has significant implications for Australia’s ability to produce the next generation of engineers, physicists, chemists and software engineers – the innovators we need to skill Australia into the future.

An expert in theoretical computer science and mathematics education from the University of Newcastle’s School of Education, Prieto-Rodriguez is on a mission to shape the next generation of mathematics teachers so they can re-energise Australia’s mathematics education.

“Mathematics is essential in engineering and science degrees, and we know there is a shortage of students taking these subjects in Australia,” Prieto-Rodriguez said.

“Somehow we have to convey the relevance of maths to students, to show them how important this is if you want to be an innovator.”

She is currently engaged in the Inspiring Mathematics and Science in Teacher Education (IMSITE) project. This cross-institutional study involves six Australian universities that are looking at the training of pre-service maths teachers in a bid to engage more students to continue in their mathematics education.

The hope is that these teachers will be able to convey to students not only the beauty of mathematics, but its relevance to other subjects and future career paths.

“The other issue is that maths is very difficult, so we need teachers who are really proficient, not just at a secondary level but also in primary,” Prieto-Rodriguez said.

Having recently developed a suite of online courses for maths teachers, which enable better interaction with online instructors, her research has found that blended teaching is more successful if it offers discussion forums.

Prieto-Rodriguez’s interest in maths education started during her undergraduate years, and she spent 18 months training maths teachers in a bullet-marked university in El Salvador before moving to Canada to commence a postgraduate degree in computer science.

Being an expert in theoretical computer science as well as mathematics education has huge advantages. She is able to understand and impart the value of computational thinking in modern teaching. Prieto-Rodriguez believes computer science is about much more than programming – it’s about imagination and innovation.

“Every time you Google or use your smartphone, you run algorithms that were designed using computational thinking, which is a particular way of thinking about how to implement ideas with hardware or software,” Prieto-Rodriguez said.

“Many people don’t understand the work behind the internet, and we’re trying to introduce this into the curriculum at a primary and secondary level all over the world.”

Her expertise in computational thinking has led to several projects, which are partly funded by Google, to engage school teachers and students and fill gaps in Australia’s skill base.

For example, she ran a series of professional development workshops for teachers that aimed to promote computer science and provide the skills and resources necessary to teach it. A major sticking point, she found, was that most teachers did not fully understand what computational thinking was – believing it to be solely about programming.

She has also worked with two local schools in Newcastle to take part in Code.org, an international not-for-profit initiative involving 45 million students worldwide that aims to introduce computer science into schools.

Learn more about UON’s Faculty of Education and the Arts Research Directions in 2015.

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