Maths plus 'geeky' images equals deterred students

May 12, 2008

Images of maths ‘geeks’ stop people from studying mathematics or using it in later life, shows research funded by the Economic and Social Research Council.

Many students and undergraduates seem to think of mathematicians as old, white, middle-class men who are obsessed with their subject, lack social skills and have no personal life outside maths. The student’s views of maths itself included narrow and inaccurate images that are often limited to numbers and basic arithmetic.

The research revealed that many of the clichéd perceptions which it identified are linked to the way in which mathematics and mathematicians are presented in popular culture. Although there has been an increase since 2006, the number of people in England and Wales choosing to study maths has been in decline in the last decade. The subject’s negative portrayal in popular culture contributes to this lack of interest. The research went on to suggest using popular culture as one way to promote a more positive view of maths.

Dr Heather Mendick and Marie-Pierre Moreau from London Metropolitan together with Prof Debbie Epstein of Cardiff University undertook a survey, focus groups and interviews with GCSE school students, final year mathematics undergraduates and post and undergraduate students in the social sciences and humanities.

Dr Heather Mendick, who led the project, said: “Given the narrow, negative clichés associated with maths and mathematicians, it is hardly surprising that relatively few young people want to continue with the subject.

Dr Mendick continues “a substantial majority of both Year 11 and university students saw maths as little more than numbers and mathematicians as old, white, middle-class men”

The notion of mathematicians as geeks was common both among those who identified with the subject and those who did not. Images of mathematicians Albert Einstein and John Nash were labelled as not normal, lacking social skills and being obsessive towards mathematics. But those students who chose to continue studying mathematics for A-level or at university were more likely to regard this obsession as indicating skill, commitment or devotion than madness. Some mathematics undergraduates – more particularly males – gave positive value to geek status, even though several went to considerable lengths to claim their own normality.

Dr Mendick concludes “This raises two important issues: first, we can see how popular culture is deterring many people from enjoying maths and wanting to carry on with it and, second, it raises issues in relation to social justice as these images are mainly of white, middle-class men and so may discourage other groups disproportionately.”

Source: Economic & Social Research Council

Explore further: World's largest solar boat on Greek prehistoric mission

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

The complexonaut

Apr 09, 2014

When he was in elementary school, Scott Aaronson, like many mathematically precocious kids of his generation, dreamed of making his own video games. He had only the foggiest notion of what that entailed, ...

How robots learn general skills

Jan 08, 2014

To understand ourselves better, Roby Velez researches how robots learn general skills that help them explore their environment.

Uncovering hidden structures in massive data collections

Dec 02, 2013

(Phys.org) —Advances in computer storage have created collections of data so huge that researchers often have trouble uncovering critical patterns in connections among individual items, making it difficult ...

Recommended for you

Dinosaurs doing well before asteroid impact

22 minutes ago

A new analysis of fossils from the last years of the dinosaurs concludes that extra-terrestrial impact was likely the sole cause of extinction in most cases.

A word in your ear, but make it snappy

22 hours ago

To most, crocodiles conjure images of sharp teeth, powerful jaws and ferocious, predatory displays – but they are certainly not famous for their hearing abilities. However, this could all change, as new ...

Understanding the economics of human trafficking

23 hours ago

Although Europe is one of the strictest regions in the world when it comes to guaranteeing the respect of human rights, the number of people trafficked to or within the EU still amounts to several hundred ...

User comments : 0