Musings on the current state of
mathematical ability of undergraduate engineers.

Peter Edwards, Bournemouth University, Bournemouth,
UK

"Students today just aren't as good [mathematically]
as they used to be". How many times have we heard this recently?
I actually hear myself saying it from time to time and, to a certain
extent, and, for a variety of reasons, it seems to be true. What
I have to do, however, is to remind myself that I heard these same
words from my mentor, Stan Simpson, when I started teaching undergraduate
engineers over 30 years ago. Perhaps it has always been the
same, but look at what was different back then:

Twenty-five years ago in the UK most undergraduates

came straight from school with no break in their education
(currently more students are willing to take a 'gap' year -
also there is now a higher percentage of mature students with
a 10, or even 20, year break in their education).

experienced greater competition in gaining entry to the then
approximately 30 universities (unlike the present 100+, so leading
to a current 'wider trawl of the net').

had to have studied, and passed, A-level Maths, and
probably Physics, to gain entry to undergraduate engineering
courses (a wider diversity of A-levels nowadays has led to a
reduction of students studying, hence offering, these more academically
rigorous subjects).

had a feel for 'number' (most knew their 'times tables', for
example, without having to resort to calculators).

weren't allowed formula books in examinations and so had to
commit mathematical formulae and methods to memory - this helped
to ensure that the mathematics was 'at their fingertips'.

So, there could be a case for proposing that some
deterioration in student mathematical ability has occurred. One
moment, though. 'Ability', here, is the wrong word. Student ability
is not what is in question, rather it is capability. Most
students are able to cope with undergraduate mathematics.
However, owing to various reasons (some alluded to above - and mainly
due to their mathematical upbringing), some students are not capable
of successfully studying undergraduate engineering mathematics.

What university mathematics lecturers have to do is
encourage and enhance students' innate mathematical ability
by improving their mathematical capability.