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There's more to civil engineering than maths


What do I think of A level maths for civil engineers?

Largely a waste of time: unless they really enjoy the subject, the time would be better spent in the art room, reading Shakespeare or studying French literature.

This is not a viewpoint overwhelmingly supported by NCE readers, judging from the response so far to last week's article and questionnaire on maths. But as we are running the questionnaire again this week I thought I would put my case in a bid to appeal for some support.

The reason behind my dislike of A level maths is, of course, because the subject was largely a mystery to me. If I could have dumped it for something artsy, I am convinced I would have got a better grade, maybe even a more rounded education.

But as I wanted to study engineering of some form or other, maths had to accompany my physics and technology A levels.

Unlike my other two subjects, I really struggled to relate A level maths to any practical application. I lost interest and so did not put the same amount of work into the subject as I did for the others. I got through it but my grade suffered.

Of course, once I got to university, the pain started all over again. Even 17 years ago the maths refresher course kicked off immediately with the entire engineering faculty suffering weekly maths tests, gradings, mid-week re-tests and, speaking personally, regular humiliation.

At the first opportunity I dropped that particular form of torture. But after a year I had at least grasped enough of the evil subject to get me up and running on my civil engineering career.

University maths taught me what I needed to know, put it into the context of actual problems and linked it to useful problem solving. It still gave me severe mental difficulties, but compared to the A level, maths at university felt worthwhile.

So for me, a good grounding at O level, followed by the maths necessary for my other science A levels would have seen me to university. At this point the obligatory refresher course would have given me the skills, and probably the enthusiasm, to grasp the essentials for civil engineering.

Meanwhile, my French might have been better, my background knowledge of literature might have been deeper, my insight into economic principles more grounded.

And it is this last point that is so important for the profession.

This weekend sees the final of the BBC's Great Britons series in which Brunel stands a high chance of coming out on top (don't forget to tune in and vote). Here was a true civil engineer - and yes, he had a sound grasp of maths and the technicalities of structural design.

But crucially he also knew about the needs of society, knew what looked good, and was an expert communicator, able to persuade people not only to trust his designs and ideas but also to fund them. He hung out with composers, writers and politicians and knew far more than simply why the Clifton Suspension Bridge stood up.

So while I would be the first to agree that maths is vital for civil engineers (for the record, I could do the first two questions in our survey), I fear that insistence on undergraduates studying the pure content of A level maths is hindering the profession. I fear that without more diversity of knowledge we will never deliver another Brunel.

Antony Oliver is editor of NCE

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