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Tue, Jun 15, 2010
The Business Times
Mathematics - a skill to make the world smarter

By G VENKATRAGHAVAN

YOUNG people frequently wonder what the most promising jobs of the future will be.

The following questions may shed some light:

Can you predict when a cell phone user is about to switch to a new carrier?

How about spotting a rogue trader who is secretly trying to fleece an international bank?

These may sound like the job description for a carnival psychic, but it is really painting the skill set of a 21st-century problem solver.

Events of the past decade have illustrated that corporations and governments must do a better job of predicting and avoiding disasters. The problem isn't a lack of information. The world is awash in data. Governments collect lots of it - demographics, information about traffic conditions out on the highway and so on. Via the Internet, businesses have more data about their customers than ever before.

Nevertheless, having the best, most complete and up-to-date information in the world is useless if you can't make sense of it.

Case in point: Telecommunications companies have a lot of supremely valuable information about each customer, including his or her complete call history. These businesses understand that it's much easier to retain an existing customer than acquire a new one. So they are eager to develop systems that turn information into insight, giving them a warning before a customer decides to jump ship.

This requires the burgeoning science of analytics, which employs logic to provide greater insight into natural and man-made processes.

Practitioners skilled in analytics can create algorithms that study a trader's incredibly complex sell and buy patterns to determine whether he is quietly covering his tracks while engaging in a massive fraud. Another set of algorithms can help police departments evaluate changing crime patterns and predict where new threats will emerge.

The young people who master this area will be in demand. What skills are required to succeed? Facility with mathematics for sure - the language of prediction. But the job seekers who are most successful will not be pure theoreticians. They will have the business savvy necessary to apply maths to real-world problems, including expertise in a particular industry or two, whether it's retail, healthcare, financial services or green energy.

Singapore teaches the world

In his speech on Strengthening Education for All delivered at the FY 2010 Committee of Supply Debate, Ng Eng Hen, Minister for Education and Second Minister for Defence said: 'Singapore is considered a leader of educational innovations and a key partner for the international division of the Cambridge Local Exams Syndicate - Cambridge International Examinations (CIE). When CIE staff talk to other countries about their school curriculum, these countries say that 'we want to be like Singapore'.'

Dr Ng added that Singapore regularly receives many delegations from overseas including ministers of other top-performing systems who visit the Republic's schools and institutions where they are impressed with the quality of engaged learning found in classrooms - from school to tertiary level, and the commitment of our educators.

Some may recall reading in the news about Singapore's Mathematics curriculum making an impression on the global stage, particularly in the United States.

According to international publisher Marshall Cavendish who publishes two different series of textbooks for the Singapore Math curriculum that are available in the US, 'Singapore Math' is a programme that is receiving a great deal of attention from educators across the US.

In addition, the American Institutes for Research published a study for the US Department of Education in January 2005, looking at 'What the United States Can Learn From Singapore's World-Class Mathematics System'. And an October 2009 report from the Gabriella and Paul Rosenbaum Foundation demonstrated statistically that students participating in Singapore Math classes in the North Middlesex (MA) Regional School District - the first district-wide implementation of the curriculum in the US - scored higher than students from other districts on Massachusetts state exams.

'The methodology is different from what most American teachers are used to. But with a school's commitment to the curriculum, the Singapore Math model can be immensely effective - whether it's a rural school in Bethel, Oklahoma, a suburban school in Scarsdale, New York, or an urban school in New Orleans,' says Duriya Aziz, publisher and general manager of educational publishing for Marshall Cavendish International (Singapore) Pte Ltd.

'And perhaps the best part besides improved performance? Children in Singapore have one of the highest enjoyment levels for math in the world.'

But we must do more. Schools should teach advanced courses such as calculus to a greater number of students, grounding them in the critical thinking essential to analytics careers. This will require changes in curricula, not only in tertiary education institutions, but in secondary schools to prepare them early.

Our desire to fuel innovation should kindle increased collaboration between businesses and the educators in developing advanced course work as well as opportunities for students to gain practical experience while still in school.

You don't need an algorithm to understand that competition in a globalised world will become more intense. So when young people ask about the future, tell them they will achieve success if they have the skills that make the world more intelligent.

  • The writer is managing partner, IBM Global Business Services in Singapore
  • This article was first published in The Business Times.

 

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