Math and Science is important - but not for me

By Murray Bourne, 22 Sep 2007

A report this week from Public Agenda, Important, But Not for Me: Kansas and Missouri Students and Parents Talk About Math, Science and Technology Education, has some interesting things to say about views on math and science in the Midwest of the US:

There is growing consensus among the nation’s business, government and higher education leaders that unless schools do more to train and nurture a whole new generation of young Americans with strong skills in math, science and technology, U.S. leadership in the world economy is at risk. But our new report concludes that Kansas and Missouri parents and students didn’t get the memo.

In the press release, we read that the report:

...details parents’ and students’ current thinking about MST education and their satisfaction with the existing curriculum which most experts see as vastly below world-class standards. According to the study, just 25% of Kansas/Missouri parents think their children should be studying more math and science; 70% think things “are fine as they are now.”

Furthermore:

...only 23 percent of parents and 26 percent of students believe it is essential to understand higher level math like calculus and only 23 percent of parents and 24 percent of students say it is essential to understand advanced sciences like physics.

From the students:

“I hate math because it’s hard for me to understand how that’s ever going to come back and help me. There’s just not a point.” Another said, “Science doesn’t matter unless you want to become a doctor or something like that.”

Issues Raised in the Study

The questionnaire used in the survey includes the following items:

  • Issues with curriculum,
  • complacency,
  • relevance,
  • student views on teachers (quite high),
  • the importance of parents’ views,
  • popularity of math nerds
  • and motivation for math.

My View

(1) I always say that educational research is correct, within a margin of ± 50%. This survey is no different, in that it includes questions like:

Do you think the following is essential for schools to teach?
Having basic math skills
Understanding higher-level math like calculus

But what is "basic math"? What is "calculus"? (If you are a parent and you have never studied it, how would you ever know if calculus was useful or not)?

I know from the way people search for math items on the Interactive Math site, that different people have very different views on what constitutes "basic math".

(2) A more important issue is that most people don’t see a need for mathematics because they have never seen how it is used. This is because most math curricula involve algebra (with very few applications), trigonometry (once again, no applications), and so on. The result is that many math teachers rarely see any application of math, so that when the students ask what is it good for, they tend to agree with the students that it is only good for passing exams and getting college entry.

See also: It’s Fun to Hate Math for more on this topic.

I strongly feel that we should start with the applications and draw the theory from that - not just teach algebra for the sake of it. Maybe then, more students and their parents will see a need for math (and science).

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