The Mathematical Problems Faced by Advanced STEM Students

Stage: 5
Article by Steve Hewson

Published May 2011,February 2011.

Mathematics is critical to the study of any STEM subject; indeed, historically the development of science, technology, engineering and mathematics has often gone hand in hand.

The scientist or engineer needs to embrace mathematics in order to get the most from their studies. Unfortunately, students often struggle with the mathematical aspects of their scientific degree courses. In this article we explore some of the main mathematical problems arising. Far from simply a lack of content knowledge, we believe that the main area of concern is in mathematical process skills.

Problem: Students don't know enough maths!

Whilst preparing stemNRICH it was clear that sometimes certain content knowledge was lacking: those teaching biology, chemistry, physics and engineering courses often claimed that students didn't know enough about various topics in mathematics. Sometimes this lack of content knowledge was obvious: students in engineering need to know about complex numbers; other times it was graded or more subtle: biologists needed to know more about graphs and equations. Whilst these various topics obviously varied across universities and courses, interestingly, there was a surprising large overlap between the mathematical needs.

The following core topics seemed to emerge across many disciplines:

Topic Easier application Harder application
Measurements Interpreting an image Units
Estimation Real world contexts Problems with missing data
Powers Orders of magnitude Half lives
Equations and graphs Growth curves Scientific curves
Areas and Volumes Approximating natural shapes Packing structures
Proportional reasoning Working out a dilution Gas laws
Logarithms Working out a pH Buffers
Geometry Packing problems Spherical triangles
Fractions and decimals Genetics Error bounds
Data and statistics Pattern spotting Confidence intervals
Probability Combinatorics in chemistry Scale invariance
Calculus Finding maxima and minima Rates of change
Matrices Transformations Crystal symmetry structure
Vectors Statics Bond angles
Complex numbers Problems with quadratic equations Electric circuits
Differential equations Simple mathematical models Models of the atom
Technology Fitting curves to data Monte-Carlo methods

Solution: We designed stemNRICH around the content areas needed for university STEM courses.

Problem: Students can't apply their knowledge!

Beneath any issues which might arise in knowledge of content, many students with good grades in mathematics seem to find it difficult to apply the mathematical knowledge that they might have. Why would this be the case?

It seems that there are several main reasons, common to all disciplines:
  • Overly Procedural thinking
    Mathematics exams can often be passed by learning the content procedurally. This means that students can answer certain types of question by following a recipe. The problems in scientific mathematics arise because even minor deviations from the precise recipe cause the student to fail to know what to do.

  • Lack of ability to translate mathematical meaning to real-world meaning
    Students who are very skilled at mathematics might have trouble seeing how to relate the mathematical process to a real-world context; this hampers the use of common sense, so valuable in quantitative science.

  • Lack of ability to make approximations or estimations
    Real scientific contexts are rarely simple. In order to apply mathematics predictively, approximations or estimations will need to be made. To make approximations or estimations requires the student to really understand the meaning and structure of the mathematics, along with the underlying scientific meaning.

  • Lack of multi-step problem solving skills
    Scientific mathematics problems are not usually clearly 'signposted' from a mathematical point of view. The student must assess the physical situation, decide how to represent it mathematically, decide what needs to be solved and then solve the problem. Students who are not well versed in solving 'multi-step' problems in mathematics are very likely to struggle with the application of their mathematical knowledge.

  • Lack of practice
    There are two ways in which lack of practice can impact mathematical activity in the sciences. First is a lack of skill at basic numerical or symbolic manipulation. This leads to errors and hold-ups regardless of whether the student understands what they are trying to do. Second is a lack of practice at thinking mathematically in a scientific context.

  • Lack of confidence
    Lack of confidence builds with uncertainty and failure, leading to more problems. Students who freeze at the sight of numbers or equations will most certainly underperform.

  • Lack of mathematical interest
    Students are hopefully strongly driven by their interest in science. If mathematics is studied in an environment independent of this then mathematics often never finds meaning and remains abstract, dull and difficult.
Solution: Our stemNRICH problems target these critical mathematical process skills.


To make the most of and enjoy a university STEM course students need to have a solid base of appropriate mathematical content coupled with an equivalently strong set of mathematical process skills allowing them to apply their knowledge successfully. Insufficient levels in either area will cause students trouble.

NRICH problems differ from many standard textbook questions or interventions because there is always a focus on a mathematical process; stemNRICH takes this well-developed NRICH philosophy and applies it to scientific contexts.

It is hoped that by supplementing standard, traditional preparations with material from stemNRICH, students will arrive at university well equipped for a happy, productive and successful time.