I regularly review resources written for pupils and teachers that in some way aim to support or extend Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) education. The most recent campaign in the UK is the Your Life campaign and as usual it has a website with short articles designed for teachers and pupils to browse and be inspired.
Imagine my excitement when one of the articles was called “Why Do Penguins Care About Maths?”. Two of my favourite things together in one article, there was even a video. I imagined something about penguins going North, then East then South on their quest for fish and ending up close to where they started. How does the problem change for a beady-eyed Rockhopper over a majestic (but slightly ridiculous) Emperor? How far does a penguin swim anyway? How do you map three-dimensional movement as it glides up and down under the water? So many possibilities for penguins and maths.
You can certainly imagine my disappointment then when the answer was that their keeper needed to work out how many fish to feed 6 penguins and how to calculate the volume of their tank. The video didn’t even have that many penguin close ups. Not many penguins and not much maths.
The Your Life campaign is a collaboration between government and some large employers. It aims to increase the numbers taking STEM subjects, particularly physics and maths, by 50% in three years. The articles on the website are written with explicit links to careers. Understanding just how important maths is to a whole range of careers is poor. This week I have also completed an evaluation of a project on careers advice for careers in the NHS. About 80% of pupils surveyed knew you needed science to be a doctor, around 50% selected maths. There were similar results for other NHS careers. Maths engagement in a campaign like the Your Life campaign does need to show application for careers, and a wide range of careers which use maths at lots of different levels, not only careers for people with degrees in maths. But surely we can do better than some arithmetic?
So why should a penguin (or other favourite animal) care about maths?