ANALYSIS & OPINION

Educational software used to bridge the STEM skills gap

9 April 2014



There have been a string of recent announcements regarding educational software and initiatives aimed at getting young people and students to engage with mathematical and modelling software. Robert Roe reports

The modern world runs on science and mathematics, but these are not always the most attractive subjects for children to learn at school and take on to university. In the UK, for example, university science departments have been contracting or even closing in recent years.

So it is good to see commercial companies getting in on the act, with a string of recent announcements regarding educational software and initiatives aimed at getting young people and students to engage with mathematical and modelling software. Ultimately, of course, such initiatives are in the companies’ own best interests – the more students graduating with a knowledge of and interest in mathematical software, the greater the future sales! However, in the short term, such initiatives often represent expenditure without a compensating net increase in sales.

A wide range of initiatives has been announced recently: the Mathworks hosted a robotics competition at the University of Cambridge; Maple released an update for Maple 18 which added features to engage students more effectively; Microsoft recently finished its ‘Prime Challenge’, encouraging people to search for undiscovered prime numbers using Azure; and finally Altair recently released its HyperWorks 12.0 Student Edition, with new features making it the most comprehensive version available to students.

The Mathworks recently hosted its second robot challenge for students at the University of Cambridge. Nine teams competed to program Lego Mindstorm NXT robots, pitting their technical skills against fellow students to complete a 2D navigational task in the fastest time and with the greatest accuracy. Using Matlab and Simulink, the students put the theory they had learned in the classroom into practice in a fast-paced contest.

The competition was won by Team Douby, whose members were: Shaoran Hu, an astronomy student; Hongfei Li and Xiaoming Yu, both engineering students. They hit all nine required targets in the fastest time. Each member of the winning team was awarded an Arduino Starter Kit. In second place was team ChuStorms, whose members were William Froom, Matthew Hollands, Fred Reuss and Siddarth Swaroop, all engineering students.

Dr Coorous Mohtadi, senior academic technical marketing specialist at Mathworks, said: ‘There’s a major push to get more students in the UK interested in STEM subjects. Events like this give students the opportunity to apply the theory they’ve learned in the classroom while also gaining key skills demanded by industry, such as critical thinking and team work.’

Maplesoft announced a major new release of its flagship product, Maple 18 at the beginning of March. It includes new features to help engage students in the software but also maths in general, with tools for developing interactive applications and quizzes, together with additional features to enrich and streamline the student experience.

Maple supports the creation of interactive Math Apps for use in the classroom and through The Möbius Project, an initiative from Maplesoft that supports the creation, sharing, and grading of Math Apps. With Maple 18, instructors can take advantage of increased flexibility in the one-step Math App creation tool to create more complex applications, and randomly generated quizzes for their students. The new Clickable Math tools include a dedicated calculus palette, improved context-sensitive menus for student-learning, and more than 75 new Math Apps for math, biology, chemistry, and engineering. There is also a new statistics package designed specifically to help teachers and students, with an introductory course in statistics offering formulas and visualisations of statistical quantities, hypothesis testing, and interactive exploration.

The ‘Prime Challenge’ launched by Microsoft Azure in November last year recently came to a close with the user registered as PHunterLau being declared the winner. Over 400 people signed up to the challenge, but it was PHunterLau who emerged as the winner after discovering a prime number that was more than 342,000 digits long.

The Prime Challenge was designed as a platform to introduce people to complex cloud computing. It catered to people with a casual interest in the topic, through to mathematically skilled coders. In fact, many of the participants of The Prime Challenge had never used cloud computing before.

Altair’s new HyperWorks 12.0 Student Edition offers, free of charge, extensive learning resources designed especially for students on the Altair Academic Training Center. In addition, Altair provides students with on-demand interactive support through the moderated Academic Support Forum.

The addition of SolidThinking Inspire for intuitive concept generation enables simulation-based design that incorporates topology optimisation, while SolidThinking Evolve offers classic industrial design sketching and modelling functionality for the exploration of design alternatives.

Other features include multi-body dynamics using MotionSolve; a crash and impact simulation solver using Radioss; and a general-purpose computational fluid dynamics solver based on the finite element method called AcuSolve. Finally HyperStudy and HyperMath offer a powerful and flexible programming language with comprehensive math and utility libraries, while HyperCrash provides a robust pre-processing environment specifically designed to automate the creation of high-fidelity models for crash analysis and safety evaluation.

Related internet links

Mathworks robotics competitions
Maple 18
HyperWorks 12.0 Student Edition