Jane MacMaster regularly posts about Australian engineering achievements and challenges on social media, often sparking lively conversations.

The Chief Engineer for Engineers Australia tells *Cosmos*, there’s one subject that ignites the passions of her network, generating “an order of magnitude” more likes and comments than other posts.

And that’s maths.

Strong quantitative, analytical thinking and problem solving skills are what makes an engineering qualification so highly valued across the economy, MacMaster says. Skills underpinned by an understanding of maths.

“We need more young Australians to study maths at higher levels and higher standards, in order to be the pipeline of our future engineering workforce,” she says.

It’s why Engineers Australia is prioritising maths education action plan for tackling the nation’s “greatest ever engineering skills shortage”.

Several issues are now troubling the profession.

Firstly, the number of year 12 students choosing to study intermediate or higher level maths is now at an all-time low, according to the Australian Mathematical Sciences Institute. Two-thirds (66%) of final year students are enrolled in one or more maths subjects, compared to typical levels hovering around 71 – 73% in the past decade.

A contributing factor, MacMaster says, is that in many Australian states and territories no longer make studying maths compulsory through to year 12.

Adding to the mix is the surprisingly large share of engineering courses which do not require maths as a prerequisite.

38% of engineering courses in Australia do not require any level of maths as a prerequisite for entry

MacMaster is concerned that the declining numbers of senior students studying maths, particularly at intermediate or higher levels, means a cohort less likely to start, and successfully complete an engineering degree.

That’s a problem because Australia is already second lowest in the OECD in the share of university graduates who are engineers, according to Professionals Australia, another organisation concerned about the looming skills crisis.

The shortage of engineers isn’t unique to Australia, it’s a problem facing other countries including the United Statesand United Kingdom.

But at 8.5% the share of students graduating as engineers in Australia is well below the OECD average (13%) and much lower than countries like Germany (23%) and Korea (21%) which top the list.

**Nuts and bolts **

Strong grounding in maths has long been considered essential to engineering education.

So it’s surprising to learn that 38% of engineering courses in Australia do not require any level of maths as a prerequisite for entry.

A 2020 report by the Office of the Chief Scientist and the Australian Mathematical Sciences Institute mapped university maths and science prerequisites for a range of disciplines considered to have a strong link to mathematics, including engineering.

The decline in prerequisite requirements has consequences for both universities and students, the report says. Universities need to support students enrolling with varied skill levels, including some below the expected levels; meanwhile students entering a maths-heavy degree like engineering may feel underprepared or struggle with the content.

Associate Professor Gavin Buskes is an education specialist in the Faculty of Engineering and Information Technology at the University of Melbourne. Under the ‘Melbourne Model’ entry into a Bachelor of Science majoring in engineering systems requires Mathematical Methods VCE Units 3 and 4 (an intermediate level of maths in years 11 and 12) as a minimum.

Studying mathematics gives you analytical skills, or problem solving skills, that you can use as an engineer

Associate Professor Gavin Buskes, University of Melbourne

Buskes says there are a “huge range of reasons” why an understanding of maths is fundamental for studying engineering.

First and foremost, he says, “there’s a very good correlation between students who do mathematics at high school and their interest in engineering.”

“Secondly, studying mathematics gives you analytical skills, or problem solving skills, that you can use as an engineer”. He describes maths as a “playground” for exercising those skills without having to bring in discipline-specific knowledge.

Thirdly, studying engineering involves a lot of team-based and project-based learning, and that becomes much more challenging when there isn’t a shared level of maths knowledge across the group.

“Mathematics helps engineers understand how things work”, says Professor Braden Phillips, Deputy Dean Learning and Teaching in the Sciences, Technology and Engineering faculty at the University of Adelaide.

“Understanding maths offers insights that drive creativity. This is a vital point. Some believe there is a clear divide between creative practice and mathematical analysis, but for engineers that’s not the case,” he says.

Phillips says engineers use maths to describe, model and evaluate systems, designing solutions to achieve performance goals, maximise safety and minimise environmental impacts.

Understanding maths offers insights that drive creativity

Professor Braden Phillips, University of Adelaide

“Today’s systems are often so complex, or based on phenomena that are that so far from everyday lived experience, you can’t design by intuition or common sense alone.”

**Students struggle without strong foundations**

MacMaster supports the need for inclusive and alternative pathways into professions like engineering. But she says “sooner or later, you can’t avoid the fact that courses like engineering require a certain sophistication of maths ability”.

MacMaster says being accepted into engineering without those skills does a disservice to young people who suddenly get slammed with mathematical concepts they haven’t been exposed to across a variety of engineering subjects.

“They’re encountering maths at a level they just haven’t been exposed to before. And it’s a huge challenge for them, and many drop out because of that,” she says.

Buskes says while supports are available, lecturers find when students are struggling in the later years of the degree – say with a subject like control systems which relies on a lot of complex mathematics – it can often be hard to work out whether it’s the underlying mathematics that they’re having problems with, or the discipline concepts.

Sooner or later, you can’t avoid the fact that courses like engineering require a certain sophistication of maths ability

Jane MacMaster, Engineers Australia

Research by Professionals Australia shows only a quarter of students complete their Bachelor of Engineering within the minimum time frame, and approximately 40% of those who start an engineering degree, don’t complete it.

All of which is a problem because according to Engineers Australia, the country needs an additional 50,000 to 100,000 engineers are needed by 2030 to meet the needs of the clean energy transition, major infrastructure projects, space, and emerging areas like artificial intelligence, robots and AUKUS.

MacMaster sees a direct link between improving maths education and meeting those national priorities.

“We need more young Australians to study maths at higher levels and higher standards, in order to be the pipeline of our future engineering workforce,” she says.