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Lucy alumna Dr Meena Mehta Kotecha talks about her multidisciplinary career and journey between mathematical sciences and education

I have been a higher education (HE) practitioner since October 1999 and teaching mathematics, statistics, and operational research (MSOR), to non-specialist undergraduates registered on degree programmes other than mathematics or statistics. Education was highly valued by my parents, Professor Kantilal O Mehta (a professor of Botany at the University of Mumbai) and Urmila K Mehta (a linguist and a philologist), who were both dedicated educators themselves. They encouraged my siblings and I to focus on getting the best education.

My multidisciplinary educational background has had a substantial impact on my research interests and teaching practice. I obtained BA Honours in Philosophy and Psychology followed by Master’s in Sociology from the University of Mumbai. My goal was to get a PhD in Sociology in order to fulfil my aspiration to serve academia as a social scientist. However, I was always intrigued by mathematics and decided to change direction and read mathematical sciences with the Open University. I was awarded First Class honours in Mathematical Sciences, which sparked off my teaching career in HE with a lecturing post in mathematics and statistics in the Mathematics Department at the University of Hertfordshire (UH).

This was followed by my post as a lecturer, examiner, and course leader in Quantitative Methods at the University of Hertfordshire business school (UHBS). My association with class teaching in mathematics and statistics to non-specialist undergraduates at the LSE (while continuing with my lecturing position at UH) brought me in closer contact with students because of the small class-group size of students. My persistent inclination to engage critically with my profession and reflect on my work made me cognisant of students’ lack of interest and enthusiasm to apply mathematical concepts in statistics courses I was teaching, which adversely affected their statistics performance and their future careers. I was determined to intervene and help my students to improve the situation by conducting independent research. Pilot ideas, innovations, and publications emerged during my HE practices leading to conferences.

I wrote about making mathematics and statistics accessible, and enhancing university students’ engagement and their learning experience in articles on my invited lectures at the University of Mumbai. I was honoured to receive the Glory of India Award & Certificate of Excellence presented by India International Society (IIF) in September 2010. This award was in recognition of my contribution to mathematics education particularly during my collaboration with the University of Mumbai.

My conference proposal to the Institute of Mathematics and its Applications (IMA) precipitated the IMA’s first mathematics education conference which took place in June 2015. I was asked by the IMA to co-chair the conference organising and scientific committee with an academic from the University of Glasgow (read more about it here). Following the success of this event, I organised two mathematics education conferences with other universities in the UK. In 2015, I was included in the list of the 50 most influential university education professionals in the UK by Jisc. I was named as an LSE Innovator by The Learning Technology and Innovation department at LSE in 2016. I was honoured to be awarded a certificate of service in December 2020 by the IMA.

Receiving the LSE Innovator award from Nicholas Deyes, Director of Information, Management & Technology, LSE
Meena receiving the LSE Innovator award from Nicholas Deyes, Director of Information, Management & Technology, LSE

It became clear that it was anxiety linked to mathematics that seemed to obstruct students’ engagement particularly with mandatory statistics courses that form core components of most degree programmes. These students generally have either very little or no prior knowledge of statistics despite having good A-level mathematics. Furthermore, I have found from my interactions with students that they view statistics as a branch of mathematics. I wanted to find out if students transferred their negative perceptions of mathematics (irrespective of their abilities) and their mathematics anxiety (MA) to statistics.

Almost all HE courses are becoming progressively quantitative, and statistics plays a central role in university education. To quote Pullinger, former National Statistician for the United Kingdom, “this calls for us to celebrate the discipline of statistics, to show confidence in our profession, to use statistics in the public interest and to champion statistical education”. This is immensely pertinent to enhancing the image of statistics and fostering positive attitudes to statistics. The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA, a triennial international survey aiming to evaluate education systems worldwide by testing the skills and knowledge of 15-year-old students representing more than 70 economies) has shown that students with low confidence experience high levels of MA. Several countries are trying to improve science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education and training programmes by focusing on enhancing STEM skills. Foley and colleagues explain that the findings from laboratory studies and large-scale international assessments identify a link between MA and performance as a global phenomenon, advising that MA should also be considered when trying to enhance STEM career success. They argue that demand for STEM professionals continues to increase globally. The ability to understand numbers, interpret data, and communicate evidence is an essential feature of the modern workplace, and crucial to competitiveness in the global employment market.

MA has an adverse impact on the economy, as demand for STEM professionals continues to increase globally. This problem is of global interest, reflected in intercontinental endeavours to improve STEM education and enhance STEM skills. My doctoral research was inspired by my passion to help students tackle MA, which is known to be prevalent among university students irrespective of their academic abilities, and to adversely impact their performance as well as future careers. I wanted to obtain insights into what happens before MA leads to underperformance or failure, and the long-term adverse impact of underperformance or failure at individual, societal, national, and global levels.

I have been presenting invited sessions and papers at the Royal Statistical Society (RSS) annual international conferences since 2016. In July 2017, I was invited to speak about teaching excellence at the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) conference. I commenced my doctoral journey at Lucy Cavendish College, University of Cambridge in October 2017 aspiring to contribute to knowledge of MA and mathematics education. As I was approaching the second year of my PhD in Education at the University of Cambridge, I was honoured to be invited to give a keynote address at a conference Teaching Statistics to Non-Specialists. This conference was led by two academics, from the Universities of Nottingham and Birmingham and took place in June 2019. All the principles derived from my pre-doctoral work and research in progress at the University of Cambridge culminated in my keynote talk "Teaching Statistics to Non-Specialists-What can we learn from the social scientists?”

Meena speaking at the Royal Statistical Society annual international conference in 2021
Meena speaking at the Royal Statistical Society annual international conference in 2021

There have indeed been challenging moments during my doctoral study which I viewed positively, practising what I advise students and considered as opportunities to learn and improve my research. It is important to develop resilience to adverse situations that are inevitable during doctoral journeys and my intrinsic motivation to complete this research was the main driving force, which maintained persistence and perseverance.

I take this opportunity to express my gratitude to my supervisor Professor Sabates for his indispensable guidance and outstanding academic support. I would like to thank Professor Stylianides for his excellent guidance on qualitative data analyses. I am most grateful to the Faculty of Education for their support. I would like to thank my colleagues from the Research Division, Eden Centre and the Department of Statistics at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) for their support with my research. My student participants’ enthusiastic contribution is central to this research, and I appreciate their valuable input.

Finally, I am pleased that I chose Lucy Cavendish College which has a long tradition of welcoming mature students and supporting its diverse community. Dr Karen Ottewell has been a supportive College Graduate Tutor. I have enjoyed my conversations on wide-ranging research themes with my college students and meeting celebrities such as Andrew Marr at Formal Hall. I look forward to continuing my association with the college.

Meena at the Glory of India Award & Certificate of Excellence ceremony with with Baroness Verma and Home Secretary Priti Patel
Meena at the Glory of India Award & Certificate of Excellence ceremony with with Baroness Verma and Home Secretary Priti Patel