Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Math/Science Proficiency vs STEM Careers

Derek Lowe had an interesting corrective to the calls for more Science, Technical, Engineering, and Math (STEMs). I see where he's coming from. And it is very amusing to see non-technical graduates advocating for more STEMs, such as the vast majority of the political leadership on both parties. If it was so good, why couldn't you hack it?

But one thing missing from Lowe's arguments is the failure of math education in America. [We can reasonably argue the various ways of learning science and budgetary needs, but math education is strictly budget neutral.] You can toss a simple arithmatic problem at most Americans, and they'll become frozen with panic and fear if they're without calculators. That math-phobia extends to all math domains, and is remarkably broad-based across all classes. [Talking about the non-STEM population here, which is most Americans in all socio-economic classes.]

Why is that? The evisceration of the rote-learning paradigm in the 1970s is to blame. While it was a good corrective against rote memorization, most basic education require quite a bit of memorization to get started. Especially in math, proficiency with arithmatic can only come from repetitive drills over time. Even after New Math has faded, grade school teachers remain reluctant to train arithmatics in the age of calculators. The Kahn Academy and the Singaporean method both work by going back to the basic drills. Without that foundational understanding of numbers, kids cannot master higher-level material.

We don't need to make everyone into mathematicians. But they don't have to be math-phobes, either. In the rest of the world, people may not like math, nor want to be STEM. But at least they can handle numbers without calculators, they're comfortable with numbers. That's something I'd like to see here, too.

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