“Why do I have to learn this?” A case study on students’ experiences of the relevance of mathematical modelling activities
Journal article, Peer reviewed
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Original versionZDM - the International Journal on Mathematics Education. 2017, 1-13. 10.1007/s11858-017-0904-2
In this paper we explore how students can experience the relevance of mathematical modelling activities. In the literature we found that relevance is a connection among several issues (relevance of what? to whom? according to whom? and to what end?). We framed this concept in terms of Cultural-Historical Activity Theory (CHAT), a theory for analysing how individuals engage in activities within social environments. We designed modelling activities within a mathematics course for engineering students: there were ample mathematical modelling tasks, a guest lecture by an employee from an engine company who used mathematical modelling in his job, and a group work modelling assessment with a presentation to the whole group. After the course, we interviewed ten students with a wide range of final grades in the course. We analysed the interview data in light of the theoretical framing of the concept of relevance. Our analysis showed that, generally, students experienced the modelling activities as relevant, and that they imagined themselves working in professional practices for which mathematics is relevant. However, doing mathematics was also judged as being relevant only to obtain grades, leave school and enter professions for which mathematics might not be needed. We offer recommendations for making mathematics education more relevant to more students.