I’m not looking for a career in accountancy, engineering or anything that needs Maths. Why do I need to think about my numeracy skills?

It’s National Numeracy Day 2020 on the 13 May and Birkbeck Futures takes a look at why numeracy skills are important no matter what career you choose.

Picture of dominoes

Many jobs that we typically don’t think involve numbers usually require some level of numeracy.

Being numerate means that you can confidently and effectively use mathematics to meet the everyday demands of life.

You may not be asked to solve complex equations, but you could be required to complete tasks that involve numeracy skills. For example, if you’re in Human Resources, you may be asked to provide a report on gender diversity figures. Similarly, if you’re in the Arts, you may need to put together a budget for an exhibition. Both of these require some level of numeracy.

The OECD reports that there is a direct relationship between wage distribution and numeracy skills. The better your numeracy skills, the greater your earning potential.

Why?

Because all those things you learnt in Maths help build the skills employers are looking for.

Employers aren’t just looking for technical skills and subject knowledge when they recruit someone. They need you to have employability skills – transferable skills that enable you to do the job successfully. For example:

Digital Skills

Digital skills are required in at least 82% of online advertised jobs across the UK.* We live in the digital age and as a result, we deal with more numerical data that we ever have before. You need good numeracy skills to be able to work with computers, otherwise you’re unable enter the right data or identify if the answer is in the right area.

Problem Solving

Problem solving skills are vital to any graduate level job. Maths is all about solving problems; take working out an equation for example. You need to pick out the important parts of the problem and then work out the knowledge required to solve it. This skill is transferable to solving any problem, mathematical or not.

Communication

When studying Maths, or working with numbers, you will have developed your ability to assimilate and communicate information in a clear and concise way. Everything we do in the workplace is a result of and requires communication of some kind.

Employers are increasingly using numeracy tests as part of recruitment processes.

As numeracy is such an important skill for employers, many use numerical reasoning tests as part of their recruitment processes. These types of assessments measure your ability to interpret, analyse and draw logical conclusions based on numerical data presented in graphs and tables.

Students can find out more about these tests and have a practice on the online Careers Portal (accessed through your My Birkbeck Profile).

But what if I’m not good with numbers?

We all have areas of ability that we feel more confident in than others. You might not think that you’re good with numbers because of experiences with Maths in school, for example. But chances are you’re much more competent than you think.

Our level of confidence often impacts our ability to take on new challenges or face up to things we may usually avoid doing. To reiterate the problem-solving example above, when we don’t know something, we can find out how to do it. Embrace your numeric abilities and enhance your skills to help boost your confidence in this area.

Birkbeck is supporting National Numeracy Day for the first time this year. Join the conversation on Twitter or see if you can build your everyday Maths confidence by taking the challenge.

Get in contact with Birkbeck Futures at employability@bbk.ac.uk or follow us on our social channels:

*Source: “No longer optional: Employer demands for digital skills” report – June 2019

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Maths for the Masses

In this blog, Ciarán O’Donohue a PhD student in the Department of History, Classics and Archaeology, discusses the decision to teach mathematics to the first students of the Mechanics Institute. This is part of the 200th anniversary blog series that celebrates the College’s bicentenary in 2023.   

The Massacre of Peterloo

The Massacre of Peterloo. The commander is saying “Down with ’em! Chop ’em down my brave boys; give them no quarter! They want to take our Beef & Pudding from us – & remember the more you kill the less poor rates you’ll have to pay so go on Lads show your courage & your Loyalty!”

Many of us will be familiar with the common questioning of why certain concepts are taught in our schools. Mathematics, and especially its most intricate systems, are often first to face the firing squad. It is not unusual to hear someone discussing education to ask: “Why are we not taught about credit, loans, and tax? I’m never going to use Pythagoras’s Theorem!” Certainly, when the subject of mathematics is brought up, the utility of algebra and theorems are often jovially dismissed as unimportant.

Two centuries ago, the picture was very different. The question of whether mathematics would be useful or dangerous knowledge to teach to the working class was one that was debated extremely seriously. In November 1823, the same month that the London Mechanics’ Institution was founded (which has now come to be named Birkbeck, University of London), Bell’s Weekly Messenger seized upon the propriety of teaching maths to London’s lower orders, lamenting that “the unhappy scepticism in France has been justly ascribed to this cause.” The implication was that teaching maths to the wider populace had caused them to question the order of society, and directly contributed to the French Revolution and its aftermath. Pertinently, this was an order which the British government had spent a fortune, not to mention the lives of hundreds of thousands of British subjects in the Napoleonic Wars to restore.

A revolution in Britain itself was still palpably feared in the 1820s, and its spectre was made more haunting by the Peterloo massacre just four years before this particular article was written, in August 1819. And so, surrounding the foundation of our College, and which subjects were appropriate, a war of words was waged.

The idea of teaching London’s working classes mathematics filled many with visceral dread. It was believed this would cause them to also become questioning like France’s peasants, eventually seeking proof for statements which they had hitherto blindly accepted.

The teaching of mathematics to mechanics, then, was considered by many to be socially, politically, and morally dangerous. Not only might it turn them into a questioning multitude, unwilling to simply accept what they’re told, it might also make them question the very structure of society and push for a semblance of equality. For critics, both outcomes could readily lead to revolution.

Henry Brougham, one of the founders of the College, believed that this catastrophe could be averted by teaching a reified body of knowledge, including a simplified version of mathematics. Writing of geometry, Brougham argued that, rather than “go through the whole steps of that beautiful system, by which the most general and remote truths are connected with the few simple definitions and axioms” it would be sufficient (and indeed safer) if the masses were to learn only the practical operations and general utility of geometry.

Similarly, many religious supporters of extending mathematical education to the mechanics believed that it would make people more religious, not less, if only it were taught in the right way. As God was believed to have created the world, the logic and order inherent in mathematic systems was held to show traces of his hand at work. An appreciation of mathematics and its traceable, systematic connections would thus create a renewed appreciation of God; not to mention for the order of the world as divinely ordained.

Likewise, moralists perceived more benefits in teaching the mechanics mathematics than drawbacks. The issue for them was not if the mechanics were to learn or read, but rather what. The key issue was that the mechanics were already largely literate. The rise of cheap literature, especially of the sentimental and pornographic varieties, preoccupied the minds of moralists and industrialists.

As the lower orders were believed to be motivated primarily by sensuality, learning mathematics was presented as a salve to degeneracy; a way to occupy their time with higher minded pursuits and strengthen their characters against wanton immorality.

Perhaps most worrying was the growing and uncontrollable availability of radical political writings. This more than anything was likely to upset the current order of society. The perceived and highly theoretical disadvantages of a mathematical education were thus infinitely preferable to such a realistic and allegedly growing threat. It was believed that the teaching of mathematics and science through a dedicated course of study, being undertaken as in the evenings, might reduce the time and energy the working man would have to devote to reading political tracts, let alone political activism.

It is, however, worth noting that, although many mechanics were literate, and most had rudimentary mathematical skills, the wider debate was far removed from the reality. Many mechanics required far more elementary lessons in mathematics before the advanced classes could even be attempted.  Although mathematics and science initially formed the centre of the curriculum at Birkbeck in the 1820s, by 1830 the reality of need had been discovered: advanced classes had been removed altogether, and instruction in elementary arithmetic was given to vast numbers of members. This was to continue to be the reality for much of the next 30 years.

How far, then, the raging debates about the inclusion of mathematics in the curricula of new centres for working-class education impacted the trajectory, is still a topic for debate.

Further information: 

 

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Banking by day, Birkbeck by night

Mina Yau studied the BSc Economics with Business at Birkbeck while working full-time at the Bank of England.

I applied for the Bank of England school leaver programme after completing my A-levels in Economics, Accounts and History. After a successful application, I was able to start full time at the Bank of England. This meant I chose to work instead of pursuing further education, however I did not want to regret this decision and miss out on university. As such, I decided to take on further studies after my one-year probation at the Bank. It was difficult to find a university where I could continue working. However, Birkbeck gave me the opportunity to pursue further education whilst working full-time by offering evening classes (and an extra bonus of part-time studying across 4 years).

The Economics, Maths and Statistics classes at Birkbeck really helped develop my career in the bank as they taught me the necessarily skills for my day to day role. Whether it was better understanding how the economy works, the maths behind the metrics or even data programming – Birkbeck really helped widen my knowledge and skill set.

At the Bank of England, I started as a school leaver in the Data and Statistics Division, where I would collect data from banks and building societies via our internal systems and process this to specialist teams. After, I moved to the Financial Stability, Strategy and Risk directorate, working in the Macrofinancial Risks Division in the Households team. Here I was able to deep dive into risk metrics relating to Households and built a very strong understanding on housing data. I then moved to the bank’s Resilience Division where I currently work; this is similar to my last role but more focused on risks and the resilience directly to banks.

Diligence is fundamental for balancing work and study commitments. Often, late nights are required at work, which meant I was unable to attend some lectures. Luckily Birkbeck does have facilities such as room recordings which means I am able to catch up with classes over the weekend. Thankfully, the Bank of England is also filled with talented colleagues who are able to explain and help with any queries on the classes or homework which makes studying a lot easier.

If you’re in doubt on whether or not to apply to Birkbeck due to work commitments, I highly recommend just going for it. It’s an excellent learning opportunity and gives high rewards. I can proudly say that not only after four years at Birkbeck (part-time study) I have completed my degree, I also have five years’ experience at the Bank of England to go with it.

Finally, I’d like to mention Tony Humm, a fantastic lecturer for Maths for Economists – it’s a very well taught class and definitely my favourite module! If you have a choice, I highly recommend taking this class!

Further Information:

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Celebrating Women in STEM

Today Birkbeck celebrates the women working in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) fields as part of a campaign led by Media Planet, and supported by organisations such as the Institute of Engineering and Technology and The Women’s Network.

Across the STEM industries, women make up only 12.8% of the workforce in the UK, and encouraging more women into these fields is vital to address skills shortages in the UK economy, as well as to ensure there is a diversity of voices in the field.

As Alexandra Poulovassilis, Professor of Computer Science and Director of the Birkbeck Knowledge Lab puts it: “Since technology and science are shaping our societies at an ever increasing pace, it is important that the people who are making decisions on where to focus and how to prioritise innovation funding are representative of all our society globally.”

We spoke to women working in various STEM fields in Birkbeck about why they chose their careers, what excites them about their work and why it’s important for STEM disciplines to be diverse and representative.

Alexandra Poulouvassilis: Why is it important that STEM fields are diverse?

Jessica Swainston and Iroise Dumontheil: What excites you about working in STEM? 

Tingting Han: Why did you choose a career in Computer Science?

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Overcoming mathematical anxiety with customised support

evaszatmariDo you have a fear of mathematics?  Have you always avoided percentages? Do you want to run away when you see algebraic expressions?  If you think it is time to conquer your maths demons, then Eva Szatmari can help.  Eva works for the School of Business, Economics and Informatics, and enables you to customise your learning and go at your speed through her one-to-one sessions. She tells us how she can help you solve your maths and stats knowledge and support you in your studies.

Eva, what do you do?
I help students learn mathematics and statistics, working one-to-one. When he/she comes into my office, I always start by asking what would they like to work on. In this way, I am tailoring the session to the individual student need.

I also run workshops in which I try to make sure that everyone in the class is able to follow the teaching, so no one is left behind.  I make sure I create an atmosphere where students feel safe to ask questions that they think might be too simplistic in their usual lectures. Birkbeck students have very busy lives so I have made video tutorials available online including instruction on Boolean logic, the binary number system and various scientific calculator tutorials so students can access my help wherever they are. More details of this can be found here.

Could you tell us a little bit about your role and the kind of support you offer?
Students who have maths anxiety often have previous life experiences that discourage them from ever wanting to learn maths again.  Suddenly on some degree courses, they are forced to come back to maths to ensure they complete their course.  I would like to prove to them that maths is enjoyable, rewarding, and accessible to anyone.  Therefore my challenge is forensic – to detect the right mode and language for communicating to each student.  I make sure I create an encouraging environment where students can ask even the most basic maths or statistics questions.

Why is it important to offer a customised approach to learning?
The School of BEI recognises that customised approach to learning is important and it adds to the experience a student can have at Birkbeck.  We want to give every student the necessary support to excel in their studies. This ties into Birkbeck’s central mission to offer flexible education to meet the widely varying needs of our students and to help them fulfill their potential and their ambitions.

Have you seen this approach make a practical difference?
Definitely yes!  I would like to give you two examples of students I helped.  One of them had severe maths anxiety and approached me for some extra tutorials not believing he would understand it.  He had no maths experience because of disruptive schooling.  We started with the basics, and gradually he got really to like maths and he enjoys the course he was on more because he no longer feared the relevant sessions.  He went on to pass his maths exam which was part of his course.

I am not here only for the weakest students, but to help anyone at whatever level.  In another example, a student came to see me needing a 1st Class Honours degree to get on her chosen Masters and I am happy and proud that she got accepted for Oxbridge to do what she wanted.

It has repeatedly been shown that there is a correlation between better numeracy skills, and better life chances – the higher your mathematical abilities, the higher your job prospects and your earning potential.

Why is this customised learning approach unique?
There are many initiatives out there which provide support for literacy skills, but considerably fewer that develop numeracy skills. This is particularly true at university level. This customised learning approach makes a real difference to improving the confidence and mathematical skills of students. This means they may achieve more in their courses than they would otherwise and often they surprise themselves at what they can do.

Birkbeck is in itself unique when compared to most other universities for two particular reasons. A significant proportion of students are already in full-time employment, or they are hoping to use the skills they learn at Birkbeck to change their existing careers. There is a particular need for additional numeracy support in the School of BEI, where mathematics may feature significantly in a course or module, but where many students join from a different academic discipline, or from a professional environment where they have not used formal mathematics in the same way.

Finally, how can BEI students at Birkbeck get in touch with you if they want to work with you?
They can email me on e.szatmari@bbk.ac.uk to book a one-on-one session. These normally last about an hour. They can also see the BEI Workshop Timetable on my staff web page for module specific workshops.

The sessions I run are completely confidential, and it’s important that students know there’s no need to be embarrassed about asking for assistance – it’s what I’m here for. It’s worth any student who is unsure about a particular aspect of mathematics coming, especially with exams on the horizon!

 

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