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The importance of additional mathematics to future engineers, plus who will draw the roadmap for synthetic biology?

Applying mathematics

Clearly, mathematics is an essential tool used by engineers every day, and the ability to apply mathe-matics to engineering problems is a skill that every aspiring member of the profession needs to develop.

The question of whether the advanced diploma in engineering being introduced in British schools and colleges is suitable for direct entry onto engineering degree courses has attracted much comment over the last two years. Many in the engineering community have taken the view that additional mathematics needs to be provided to those who take the diploma. It has also been suggested that teachers need more real-life engineering examples to underpin the essential mathematics.

With such concerns raised, the engineering and maths communities joined together in May 2007 to form a Maths Task Group (MTG). Along with the Royal Academy of Engineering, the group includes the Engineering Professors' Council, the Higher Education Academy Engineering Subject Centre, Mathematics in Engineering and Industry, and many others.

The MTG has proposed a new Additional and Specialist Learning (ASL) qualification of 180 guided learning hours which is now called 'Level 3 Certificate in Mathematics for Engineering'. ASL courses are optional for diploma students, some might still choose to take A level mathematics instead. The maths for engineering qualification, based on a foundation year course taught at Loughborough University, is set at
A level standard but importantly also focuses on the application of mathematical knowledge and its application to engineering problems.

Integral to the teaching and learning materials are maths exemplars that set mathematics in the context of engineering. Supported by industrial companies, they are not only designed to enthuse young people by showing exciting examples of mathematics in engineering, but also to provide support material for teachers illustrating typical real engineering applications of each topic.

The course will be assessed by a three-and-a-half hour exam divided into two parts; part A consisting of 'quick fire' mathematics questions set in an engineering context and part B assessing the student's ability to use mathematical techniques to solve a realistic engineering problem using their experience of modelling and problem solving.

Sample assessment material has already been tested on a group of 20 students who recently completed their pre-entry year for engineering at a range of universities. The students found that the material covered roughly the same elements that they had been taught in their foundation years. Although the open-ended nature of part B was unfamiliar to them, the majority described the assessment as 'hard but fair'.

The course was accredited by the QCA in June 2008. It is not designed to replace A level mathematics, but being focused on the application of mathematics in engineering it may prove better preparation for students aspiring to study engineering at university. It provides students with the skills required to competently and confidently embark on their engineering higher education and to deal with the mathematical problems they will encounter in real life.

Sapna Somani, Royal Academy of Engineering

Who will draw the roadmap for synthetic biology?

Next month, science and engineering undergraduates from around the world will head to Cambridge, Massachusetts for a competition that puts them at the forefront of a new wave of bioengineering. The International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGem) competition pits university teams against each other to come up with most novel way to redesign living organisms.

Although you might expect the teams to be full of biologists, you are as likely to find electronics engineers, physicists and even civil engineers also. In preparation for the event, many will have a taste of techniques that even biology postgraduates have to wait to perform, such as cloning cells and editing DNA.

What their team leaders might have omitted to tell them is that polymerase chain reactions (PCRs) - used to duplicate DNA in a test tube - do not get any more interesting with time. And their older colleagues are broadly fed up of having to spend weeks running PCR to get DNA into a state where they can actually do an experiment.

The delicate handiwork needed to manipulate DNA was fine when genetic engineering was just a matter of adding one or two genes to a bacteria or plant. The idea behind synthetic biology is to make much more radical alterations to a genome. Companies such as Amyris Biotechnologies have done this to create not just an anti-malarial drug but a range of different fuels. But these companies find themselves resorting to tedious sessions in the lab.

Leading synthetic biologist Drew Endy, who recently moved from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to Stanford University, finds the situation frustrating. The problem, he explains, is that there is no roadmap for the core technologies that might streamline synthetic biology work.

People point to the falling cost of DNA synthesis. It is a technology that follows an exponential similar to that of Moore's Law for semiconductors. But there is a problem with this view. The cost of synthesising strands of DNA has been falling, now down to around 60 cents per base from some $600 in 1980, but it obscures the fact that synthesis is only part of the answer. Very often, researchers want a large number of strands that differ by only a few bases each time. It's either an expensive prospect for synthesis or months of PCR and cloning.

The technologies needed for synthetic biology simply do not fit what the people want. Endy wants a roadmap analogous to that operated by Sematech in the semiconductor industry. His biofab plan (see p8) goes a little way towards that, but a true roadmap would take in much more. There are clear problems with a roadmap in that the needs of different synthetic biologists do not yet fit a common template. But, they do at least complain about the same things.

Chris Edwards, Electronics editor

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