Who Says Math Has to Be Boring?

Monday, December 16th, 2013

Nine in ten high school grads are not interested in STEM — a career or a college major involving science, technology, engineering or math — according to a survey of more than a million students.

The editors of the New York Times claims this is because the American system of teaching these subjects is broken:

The mathematical sequence has changed little since the Sputnik era: arithmetic, pre-algebra, algebra, geometry, trigonometry and, for only 17 percent of students, calculus. Science is generally limited to the familiar trinity of biology, chemistry, physics and, occasionally, earth science.

That doesn’t seem particularly damning.

These pathways, as one report from the National Academy of Education put it, assume that high school students will continue to study science and math in college. But fewer than 13 percent do, usually the most well-prepared and persistent students, who often come from families where encouragement and enrichment are fundamental. The system is alienating and is leaving behind millions of other students, almost all of whom could benefit from real-world problem solving rather than traditional drills.

Only 11 percent of the jobs in the STEM fields require high-level math, according to Anthony Carnevale, director of the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University. But the rest still require skills in critical thinking that most high school students aren’t getting in the long march to calculus.

If there’s one thing mediocre math students do not like, it’s solving real-world math problems — also known as word problems. It’s the students who no longer find the simple drills challenging who find the real-world problems invigorating rather than frustrating:

Only 18 percent of American adults can calculate how much a carpet will cost if they know the size of the room and the per-yard price of the carpet, according to a federal survey. One in five American adults lack the basic math skills expected of eighth graders, making them unfit for many newly created jobs. In many cases, that’s because they weren’t exposed to numbers at an early age.

That last sentence strikes me as wishful thinking.

Leave a Reply