There is a crisis with chemistry. Too few students study chemistry at Leaving Cert (higher) level (6,756 in 2013) and they never seem to catch up at third level. The numbers of young people studying biology is much larger (23,436 in 2013) and many are attracted to biological subjects at third level but there seems to be insufficient recognition that biology is ultimately just chemistry. As well as having an insufficient grasp of basic organic chemistry, students seem to be unprepared to cope with many fundamental concepts like acids and bases, reaction rate and, crucially, chemical equilibrium. For me, the chemistry problem is even bigger than the maths problem. It needs some form of State response. There is a real argument to be made that chemistry should be a compulsory subject for entry to certain degree programs.
Over the years I have repeatedly made the point that students need to acquire basic mathematical technique before they can become ‘problem solvers’. I still hold to that view but when technology comes along that is ‘disruptive’, we need to take notice of it and use it to our advantage. Calculators were a disruptive technology and there is no doubt that all of us now rely on calculators when in the past we might have relied on our ability to do mental arithmetic. But no one would suggest that we should reduce our use of calculators to satisfy some fixation about mental arithmetic being ‘better for you’.
Symbolic computation, or computer algebra, is a similarly disruptive technology. While I still do most of my mathematical work by hand, I find that I have actually learned quite a bit of mathematics by using symbolic computation, especially the tools available on www.wolframalpha.com. In particular, I have learned a lot about certain ‘special functions’ that I had never previously heard of. In many cases, the experience has radically changed the way I do certain calculations and I have published a few papers based on this new knowledge. Technology can be good!