Maths skills for ecologists

A perspective on maths skills in ecology by undergraduate student Rosie Clewett, University of Liverpool

Mathematical skill is crucial to ecologists. In fact, ecology is often ranked among the highest levels of maths necessitated in the biosciences. Yet many students are entering their higher ecological education without the basic mathematical confidence they need to be able to start building up their skills throughout the degree.

I’m an undergraduate student in biological sciences, and though I was aware of the essentiality of maths and statistics as a part of my degree, I don’t think I was alone in hoping that it wouldn’t be. In our very first lecture in the module ‘Essential Skills for the Life Sciences’, a collective groan hung in the air above the heads of four hundred freshers after our lecturer informed us of the amount of work to be involved in our ‘Quantitative Skills’ assignments. But how could we have applied to a university science course if we were so maths-anxious?

“There seems to be a misconception among some students that ecology, compared to other scientific disciplines, does not require extensive maths/statistical knowledge” says Dr Rachel White, from the University of Brighton. “A good grounding in applied mathematics and statistics are certainly one of a number of core skills that an ecologist should possess.”

Ecology is a bio-discipline with a high level of maths content, but there is an under-confident, negative attitude towards this content which is prevalent among students at school, and is especially bad in students who stop learning maths after GCSE. According to Zenobia Lewis, a lecturer in biological sciences at the University of Liverpool, each year group is generally split into two major levels of maths-confidence: those who have done A-level maths, who are quite unfazed by the quantitative skills modules, and those who haven’t, and very much are.

“Teaching in a way that keeps the first group of students interested, while not leaving the second group of students behind, is always difficult” explains Matthew Spencer, a quantitative biologist at University of Liverpool.

“However, this [problem] can definitely be overcome by framing the use of mathematics/statistics as just a small piece of the wider ecological puzzle” says William Kay, a postgraduate at Swansea University, “They [undergraduates] don’t need to be scared by maths and stats, because they only need to use and understand the specific tools they require.”

Field Studies Council have been working with the British Ecological Society to develop a guide on maths skills for 16 – 19 year olds and has gone out to the biology department in each school, sixth form college and FE college across the UK. The guide goes into detail on sampling strategies, mathematical skills and data presentation. This series of booklets aims to strengthen the mathematical foundation of students during their A-levels and at the beginning of university life – a critical time for learning, and the perfect opportunity to set about creating positive attitudes towards it.