Practicing Engineers' Perspective on Mathematics and Mathematics Education in College

By Tosmur-Bayazit, Nermin; Ubuz, Behiye | Journal of STEM Education : Innovations and Research, July-September 2013 | Go to article overview

Practicing Engineers' Perspective on Mathematics and Mathematics Education in College


Tosmur-Bayazit, Nermin, Ubuz, Behiye, Journal of STEM Education : Innovations and Research


I. Introduction

What is engineering? According to the Merriam Webster dictionary, engineering is the application of science and mathematics by which the properties of matter and the sources of energy in nature are made useful to people. "The engineer's profession covers a wide range of activities such as a design, manufacturing, maintenance, research and development, marketing, management, protection of environment, and even engineering ethics"(Krivickas, 2001, p. 16 ). Each engineering discipline employs different activities according to their profession. For example, structural engineers mainly do design, analysis and review (Kent and Noss, 2002) while chemical engineers focus more on model building and analysis (Kent and Noss, 2002; Graham et al., 2000). Nevertheless, there is a consensus that mathematical skills are essential to be successful in all engineering activities (Parsons, 2003). Therefore, mathematics is critical for all engineers.

Mathematics is the foundation upon which all engineering analysis is built (Wilkinson et al., 2001). However, complexity exists in the different uses of mathematics in engineering practice. Not only is there the direct use of mathematical technigues and ideas in practice (e.g., producing a case load analysis of a particular structure), but there is also the indirect use of mathematics in practice. In other words, its formative role in the development of an engineer- the ways in which mathematics contributes to the development of engineering expertise and judgement is critical. For example, matrix algebra plays an integral role in developing an understanding of many engineering principles, but matrices in explicit form may be of little practical 'use'to an engineer in the profession (Kent and Noss, 2003).

It is widely accepted that the direct use of mathematics in engineering becomes less explicit. However, this does not mean that engineering reguires less mathematics, but, only that the form and the direct use of mathematics has changed. Currently, the indirect use of mathematics is more apparent (Kent and Noss, 2003). Mathematics is used as a language, a tool to model and design, to construct a logical way of thinking, for predictions and explanations of reality, and lastly, for describing and analyzing engineering processes and systems (Lacoma, 2002; Kent and Noss, 2003; Freudenthal, 1983; Sierpinska, 1998; Mustoe, 2002). Kent and Noss (2003) reported that although many engineers do not accept that they are doing mathematics in their work, there is a lot of mathematics embedded in the practice of engineers.

In practice, a lot of mathematics is 'embedded' in the engineering: if you ask a skilled engineer in their 40s,'do you ever use mathematics?'a typical response might be,'no, I haven't used it for 20 years! The guestion then is where they no longer think of as mathematics; it's just 'doing engineering'. (Kent and Noss, 2002)

Mathematics education of engineers has been a topic of increasing debate in the last two decades (Allan, 2000; Engelbrecht, Bergsten, & Kagesten, 2012; Flegg, Mallet, & Lupton, 2012; Kent and Noss, 2002; Sutherland and Pozzi, 1995).The wide application of computers has affected mathematics curriculum and the teaching of mathematics to engineering majors. In the past, engineers had to learn a lot of computational mathematics for practical purposes. Now, engineers do not need to perform excessive calculations as computers are used instead. But, this does not mean that mathematics is less important in engineering education compared to the past. In fact, today's engineers need stronger mathematical knowledge to understand new developments in the field (Fuller, 2002). Conseguently, many countries have revised their engineering curricula (Barry and Davis, 1999; Fuller, 2002; Graham et al., 2000; Larsson, 2001; Mustoe and Lawson, 2002; Wilkinson et al., 2001

The purpose of this case study is to develop a better understanding of the practicing engineers' point of view in regard to university mathematics and mathematics education to inform curriculum reforms in mathematics education of engineering students. …

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