Math Needs a Makeover

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Our most pressing educational crisis may boil downto an image problem.

Jeff Weinstock A FORMER MATHEMATICAL boy wonder, I’m not unfamiliar with the presumption of nerdiness. Even educators, who know better, probably have to resist privately snickering: Good for you, Pythagoras. I assume you were also a first-rate Dungeons and Dragons player and a champion hall monitor. (Towhich I say, well, not in that order.)

Fortunately, the charges of nerd never deterred me. I didn’t even connect them to my math skills; I passed them off on my retainer. But that association with eternal geekdom is one of the root sources of US students’ well-chronicled math troubles. A recent technology conference laid out the grim data: 40 percent of China’s college graduates leave with engineering degrees compared to 5 percent of US grads; more US students graduate with psychology degrees than with engineering degrees. After a host of explanations were offered, Leah Jamieson, dean of Purdue University’s College of Engineering, added another:“At the heart of our problem arestereotypes.”

What makes this troublesome is that destigmatizing math may be a problem that defies a solution. Technology has done all it can to move the needle on math performance, but seems powerless to give math what it really needs: a new image. It can be done—consider how Tiger Woods has changed the way we think of golf. But unless Tiger turns his attention to quadratic equations, being a math ace will likely continue to carry the same social tarnish as being a trombonist in the school band. Changing that perception is a lot to ask of a software program.

I was fortunate to like math inherently, and I wonder if it can be liked any other way. Often, in the face of students who wanted to know why their futures rested on determining the number of days it would take for an eastbound train and a westbound train to meet in Lubbock, TX, math teachers made the case for math by pointing out its practicality. But the ability to calculate a 20 percent tip more easily didn’t make much of a dent on a 12-year-old. Certainly not on me. Instead, I liked math on its own terms. I loved its lean solutions, its immunity to argument, its inalterability. I loved its lack of tolerance; no math lesson ever allowed that every opinion is a good opinion. That sort of sentimentality was for a literature course—math was about as sentimental as a parking ticket. Above all, I liked math because of its harmony; how in each equation, x would faithfully turn up if you hit all the notes correctly. That precision was all the wow factor I ever needed.

Yet with the matter at hand—whether technology can engage math students determined to be disengaged—I actually found some traction in a point of study I recalled from a college English course, involving the poets Coleridge and Wordsworth. The two men differed over the power of nature to change moods. Coleridge believed no glimpse of sea or sky could lift a doggedly sad spirit; Wordsworth disagreed, believing that nature could transform a person’s outlook, if only that person brought forth “a mind disposed to feel its power.”

So how then is it with technology? Does it have a wow factor on par with nature’s—so dazzling that all it needs to turn a kid on to math is a mind disposed to feel its power?

Let’s hope. We know that technology can make math easier, can demystify it and make it less strange. But can it make math likeable? Can it make math, of all things, cool? Now that would really be cause to say wow.

— Jeff Weinstock, Executive Editor

This article originally appeared in the 10/01/2006 issue of THE Journal.

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