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IN MY OPINION

The economics of math education

We need to refocus and intensify our efforts on math education if Canada is to compete internationally.

By STEPHEN WATT | OCT 15 2018

Technology is erasing many of the jobs we used to train people for. Factory workers are being replaced by robot arms. Teams of legal assistants are shrinking as legal search technologies review documents. The scale of this disruption is global, as is the fierce competition to carve out space in the new economy.

Technology is also creating many new jobs we did not anticipate. Algorithms and artificial intelligence need data scientists and software specialists. Much, if not all, of this new technology relies on mathematics. With math scores dipping in schools across Canada – and less than half of Ontario’s 11-year-olds meeting the provincial standard – Canadians need to address today’s math crisis before it becomes tomorrow’s economic crisis.

The gravity of this issue was well articulated in a recent report from the Royal Bank of Canada, Humans Wanted: How Canadian Youth Can Thrive in the Age of Disruption. The report lays out how young people can make themselves employable and protect themselves from automation.

The takeaways of RBC’s assessment are pretty clear. People who are in jobs that require higher technical training, higher levels of judgment and years of education are less likely to become redundant. Those whose jobs tend to be highly repetitive and require little judgment should be more concerned.

The report also suggests that employers will need to start focusing on skills rather than credentials, and that people entering the job market will need to be creative, digitally literate, able to analyze data and, maybe most importantly, be good at math.

As the dean of a faculty at the University of Waterloo with Canada’s largest concentration of mathematical and computer science talent, I have seen first-hand the positive employment outcomes that await well-rounded students with good math and computing skills.

Math and computing is used in everything from optimizing airline routes to planning surgeries, developing new drugs and wave-modelling to save shorelines from erosion. In short, in a world increasingly driven by technology and data, math is part of nearly everything we do. Expertise in this area is increasingly putting job seekers in the driver’s seat.

As an academic who researches and oversees people teaching mathematics and computer science, I am pleased to see these areas of study rise to such prominence in the “age of intelligence.” As a Canadian reading about falling math scores, however, my optimism for our future becomes slightly bruised.

In reviewing reports from organizations such as the C.D. Howe Institute, the Conference Board of Canada and the Council of Ministers of Education Canada, it appears we need to refocus and intensify our efforts on math education if Canada is to compete with the likes of Singapore, Hong Kong and Japan. These are countries that all have a strong focus on math and who are some of Canada’s greatest economic competitors.

Given the evidence of declining math scores, perhaps it is time to take heed of some of the warning signs these reports have offered and ensure that our students are prepared for what lies ahead. The math on this is simple: if Canada isn’t prepared for what the future demands of it, then opportunity will make its way to places that are.

Stephen Watt is dean of the faculty of mathematics at the University of Waterloo.

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