Teach Mathematics for a Sustainable Future

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Recently while discussing the solutions for the International Baccalaureate Year 10 e-assessment online exams with my extended mathematics students I was impressed with their competencies. Along with mathematical skills and competencies, they were able to predict trends, identify patterns, and propose solutions for a sustainable future. This made me think about how important it is to teach mathematics if we want a sustainable future. Unfortunately, in the recent past, research has indicated that high school students are opting out of mathematics as they are unable to truly appreciate the nature of the subject.

To understand the gravity of the matter, let me first start by explaining in very simple terms how is mathematics related to sustainability. The rate of the destruction of the ozone layer is mathematically estimated; the percentage of oxygen saturation in the atmosphere for a healthy air quality index is a simple mathematical calculation; renewable energy consumption and replenishment is mathematically predicted; climate change is statistical data; planetary and galactic balance is deductive mathematics; business intelligence and economic viability are reliant on conditional probability; even artificial intelligence is a pattern identification of quantitative data. Some specific and easy to understand examples for non-mathematicians: 

  1. Conditional probability measures the chances that an outcome occurs given that another event has also occurred. This helps in forecasting trends in economics, predicting what will happen in the future by taking into consideration events in the past and present. In economics, this conditional probability is used as a decision-making tool that helps businesses cope with the impact of the future’s uncertainty. Math helps economic sustainability.
  2. Calculus helps us to measure the rate of change; differential equations of an energy balance model of climate change help us to maintain the balance with simple calculations. In fact, environmental sustainability can only be achieved with the right differential and integral calculus. Math helps environmental sustainability.
  3. Functions help to predict pandemic outbreak patterns and models of differential or probability equations equip us to fight the outbreaks. Virus containment is also a mathematical problem seeking a global consensus on the solution. Math helps biological sustainability.

There are many such examples that prove sustainability is a mathematical quest, therefore, by not motivating students to learn mathematics we are negatively impacting the sustainability of our future. Mathematics defines the possibility, pattern, and probability of events, hence it is essential for a sustainable future. Mathematical competency is fundamental to students’ academic success, they perform better in other subjects, develop problem-solving skills and become more likely to complete higher education. 

The rationale behind math education for children has been reinforced by multiple pieces of research in the past few decades. As per the Carnegie Foundation commission in 2007, a nation’s capacity to be innovative and survive the current economic demands depends on the learning of mathematics. Further, this research also highlights that a nation’s capacity to innovate and thrive in the modern workforce depends on a foundation of math and science learning. There is clearly a need for strong mathematicians as it is becoming a widespread phenomenon in the world not only because it is a prerequisite for professional competence, but also because is an important part of learning to harness artificial intelligence and computer literacy. Research also indicates that learning mathematics prepares students for 21st-century competencies. Finally, if mathematics is taught well students will develop an interest in and positive attitude toward it. This in turn will improve motivation in their future careers in mathematics as students will develop problem-solving and critical thinking early in life. This will also ensure future generations are creating well-calculated sustainable models for survival on planet earth.

But the question remains: why have we not been able to instill a love for mathematics in our high school students or how can we achieve the goal of generating interest in mathematics? There needs to be an intentional effort in investing in mathematical expertise in educational organizations. Schools must invest in teacher training to continue scientific and mathematical innovation in pedagogy in a technology-driven world. Other strategies like teaching coding should be integrated into curriculum planning right from the primary years. Approaches to teaching mathematics should make connections with specialist subjects like music and art to explore abstract ideas into meaningful connections. Teachers must plan for real-life experiences that are functional in the world of a high school student to help them understand abstract concepts. Creating Maker Spaces with Lego and other educational toys will give students confidence, and experience and develop a natural interest in learning mathematics. Therefore schools need to identify and cultivate future master teachers in mathematics. Mathematics teaching and learning should be more student-led and teacher-guided. Strategies like flipped classrooms and interdisciplinary teaching can help teachers to bring mathematics alive in the classroom.

Finally, one strategy that has worked miracles for me is not to correct student mistakes immediately. With mathematics, students learn better when they identify their mistakes themselves. We need to look through their mistakes to the intelligence that lies behind their thinking process. Therefore, it is essential to allow students to make mistakes and reflect on their thinking process. Teachers must set high standards but they should not punish students if they make mistakes, in fact, teachers should provide a safe space for making mistakes and learning from them, especially in mathematics. After all, a lot of discoveries have been accidental or in other words-mistakes. 

Future generations need to be mathematically accurate to not only make the world a better place but also sustain itself for the next million years.

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