MST121 Using Mathematics (2001)

Level 1, 30 points.

I took an A-level in maths in the 1980's and scraped through with the lowest possible pass grade, then completely crashed out on first year university maths in my abortive first attempt to get a degree. The intervening years have taught me many things, including that a good grounding in maths is useful in so many of the things that I am interested in, and this course fitted well with the longer-term study plan, so it was an easy choice to make. MST121 isn't the lowest level maths course the OU does -- it has a "baby brother" course, also worth 30 points at level 1, which starts with less assumptions about past experience. There is also a "bigger brother" course, which is designed to (optionally) run alongside this one and take each of the topics to a higher level as it goes along. I didn't take that option.

In the initial package of materials came a revision pack, including a self-test booklet. This was fantastic -- it made it clear what level of mathematical knowledge was expected and gave a chance to brush up on the basics before getting started. I would love to see more courses with this sort of preparation material.

Block A: Mathematics and Modelling

The first block of study involved installing the course software (which included Mathcad, which I loved using once I got the hang of it), working through some general revision, and introducing the main building blocks of the techniques taught by the course: sequences, algebraic representations of lines and circles, and functions.

Block B: Discrete Models

With the basics in place, the second block ran quickly through some material about functions, computing and Mathcad, before moving onto the guts of some modelling techniques using sequences and matrices. Much of the fun I had here was with the population models and learning about the potentially chaotic nature of the logistic model, which can produce nice population models, but with certain parameters shows highly chaotic behaviour.

Block C: Continuous Models

Here we moved into an area I had partially got my head around at school, calculus. Actually, I have always found differential calculus to be understandable (it's pretty mechanical) but struggled with integration which, as far as I could tell, required a certail "feel" for the subject in order to go with hunches on the approaches to try. In this course, after showing the basic principles involved, most of the hard work was left to Mathcad. I am in two minds about this, as I would have liked to have learned some more of the subject, but then again this is intended to be an introductory course which prepares the way for further study later, so using software to avoid getting bogged down with mechanics may have been wise.

Block D: Modelling Uncertainty

Finally, we had an area that I had been perversely looking forward to: a block that started with basic probability and moved on to statistics, which is something I managed to avoid at school and have been regretting ever since. After all this time I finally had a chance to find out what a standard deviation was, and why I should care. For me, this block did the trick admirably and soon I was able to understand such esoterica as how to calculate a 95% confidence interval. Enlightenment was mine!


I think I can honestly say that this was probably the most worthwhile OU course I have been on to date (2005). No, it wasn't the most difficult or time-consuming, but it was just challenging enough, taught me a great deal, and laid to rest a long-standing bugbear regarding my mathematical skills and abilities. Furthermore, MST121 presented me with the first exam I had taken in well over a decade, and I had failed the previous ones. In this case, I managed to sit the exam, nearly finished the whole paper, and got a blindingly good mark. That does wonders for morale.

This page last modified: 2005-05-13.