India must urgently set up a National Mathematics Mission to place mathematics at the center of educational excellence.
Over the last 50 years, it is a given that students good at school math must move on to becoming engineers. The demands in the IT sector have nudged this growth in engineering even further.
The tilt towards IT meant that mathematically talented students stopped taking up math as their core subject. Little wonder, BSc and MSc courses in mathematics lost attraction so much that people began to think that applied math is for the mathematically challenged! Unfortunately, ‘applied mathematicians’ too viewed its discipline in a very narrow sense by not considering peripheral streams such as statistics, mathematical economics or mathematical finance, despite John Nash, a member of the family, winning the Nobel Prize for his work in Game theory. As a result, mathematics graduates, whether their degree was in pure or applied mathematics, could not use their training for any real work, only to further strengthen the perception that mathematics education does not enable a person to pursue anything other than teaching and research.
Analytics, data science, big data…
During the last five years, there has been a downturn in demand in the IT sector. This downturn has led to the IT majors scaling down the pace of recruitment and so several engineering colleges have enrollment well below their capacity. With IT sector shrinking, there is need to identify new areas of growth and invest in the same. Of late, there has been a lot of buzz about Analytics, Data Science, and Big Data. Many companies are now on the lookout to hire mathematically trained graduates. However, the supply is weak, with very few mathematicians available.
India has immense potential for math education and employment. The industry needs such talent, as do government agencies and departments such as space research, atomic energy, intelligence agencies and defence services. Mathematics education does not require massive investment, as it’s just a matter of human resources and enabling change of attitude.
Sketch for the future
The government should launch a National Mathematics Mission with the twin objectives of creating mathematics researchers who make a mark on the world stage and creating a significant mathematics workforce that has analytical as well as communication skills with an awareness of one or more application domains. Industry bodies such as NASSCOM, CII, FICCI and ASSOCHAM should become partners in this mission. Industry could announce that they are looking to hire mathematically trained workforce in significant numbers.
The National Mathematics Mission should empower a pan-India group of mathematicians to chalk out a roadmap. This includes: One, interacting with the Department of Space, ISRO, Defence Services, DRDO, etc., and seek their requirements from the math domain. Two, creating course-structure for undergrad and postgrad courses. Universities could replace existing curriculum with the proposed one. Three, conducting workshops for teachers to enable them to change the emphasis in teaching. And four, creating online material for such courses.
Another measure is to create institutes across India to promote excellence in mathematics research. These could offer undergrad programmes – in addition to both core and advanced courses in mathematics closely related subjects such as computer science and physics. Such a programme should offer a range of optional courses in areas such as cryptography, genomics, biotechnology, statistics, economics, econometrics and finance. Students can then choose what excites them.
In this manner, we can bring back the lost glory of applied mathematics and utilise the platform to race into a bolder era with vibrant possibilities.