NY Times editorial suggests eliminating algebra requirement?

My husband recently caught a few minutes of a Diane Rehm show episode where they discussed a NY Times editorial that suggests we should rethink requiring high school students to master algebra in order to graduate.  My husband convinced me to listen to a podcast of the show during a long car ride, even though I told him that we would probably be yelling at the car stereo for most of the trip.  We did listen and found the discussion interesting and frustrating.

My first response to the idea of eliminating the algebra requirement was: “Well, I wasn’t crazy about English Lit and didn’t find it all that useful in my later life or career – why not eliminate that as well?”.  I never quite understood why schools required 4 years of English courses and not 4 years of math courses, but my point here isn’t really to knock English classes.  It’s just that not every class required in high school is going to be directly used by every student later in life.  That doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have its merits.

OK, I admit that I have always done well in math and that not all students are so lucky.  But is the difficulty a problem with the students or the way they are taught?  I’ve known many coworkers from other countries and most see Americans’ attitude about “math is hard, so it’s okay that you can’t do it” to be, well, mostly an American attitude.  Math may be difficult for some students, but it is worth mastering.  I am not an educator, but I wonder if we investigated why students in other countries perform better on math tests we might find some clues to our own problems with the subject.

According to Ed Nolan on the Diane Rehm show podcast, one problem could be the way that math is taught.  Many of us (myself included) were taught math by rules instead of getting the students to understand the underlying concepts.  It is so easy to mix up the rules and often they don’t help when you hit a problem that doesn’t nicely fit the rule (like the dreaded word problem!).  Why are students taught that they have to use a very specific recipe for every problem instead of relying on critical thinking skills to come up with the answers?  I can recall being denied credit on math assignments in high school because I did not use the exact method the teacher wanted, even though my reasoning was sound and the answer was correct.  Then when I hit college I was surprised when I was expected to use critical thinking skills to work my own way through problems and theorems.  Creativity was valuable! The same methods and skills that I had been discouraged from using in high school turned out to be the very ones that were critical for success in college and my career.  The most difficult and important problems almost always require the “out-of-the-box” thinking that employers covet and high school math teachers frown upon.

One problem I see with allowing students to skip algebra is that this will prevent them from learning any higher math, which can be a problem if a student later decides he needs that knowledge.  Math and science courses differ from others like English and history in that the knowledge has to be built up in a series of steps.  You cannot succeed in higher level math classes like trigonometry and calculus without first mastering algebra.  So, maybe not everyone is going to be an engineer, scientist or mathematician; that doesn’t mean that they don’t need math.  I would argue that many other types of jobs require math.  How else can a painter figure out how much paint he is going to need to complete a room?  Besides, do students in the 8th, 9th, or 10th grade even know for certain what kind of career they want to pursue?  I doubt it.  I didn’t know what I was going to major in when I entered college, let alone in the 10th grade.  I am grateful that I took all the required math classes in high school so I was ready when I switched majors to engineering.  I would hate to see students finding their potential career choices limited because they were allowed to skip foundation classes in high school.

I also believe that everyone just needs a basic understanding of mathematics as they make their way through life.  I am constantly surprised at how deficient many people are in math.  Years ago when I worked at a local department store, we regularly had sales where credit card customers could get the sale discount and then another 10% off.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve argued with customers that getting 40% off and then 10% off is not 50% off!  I personally use math all the time when I am at the grocery store.  I have discovered it is not uncommon for 18 eggs to be more expensive per egg than 12 eggs.  I also worry about the number of people who honestly don’t understand compound interest.  They don’t realize how much that meal they put on their credit card is really going to cost them in the long run or why saving for retirement at 20 requires so much less money that if you start at 35.  Although I’m not going to claim to understand everything about mortgages, at least I can calculate whether the monthly payment the bank is quoting me is accurate.   I also know how to critically analyze statistics so I can spot when someone is quoting carefully chosen numbers so that the conclusion drawn matches their agenda.  And don’t even get me started about logic problems.  I get so tired of people claiming that because two events seem to always happen at the same time that one has to be the cause of the other.  These are the critical thinking skills we need in order to analyze, question and understand the world around us.  Missing out on these skills leaves one’s education incomplete.

I’m not against having a discussion about the problems some students have learning algebra.  I think it is time we really talk about why we our students are so far behind the rest of the world in math and science.  I don’t have the answers, but I don’t think giving up trying to teach the concepts is the answer either.

STEM Connector Conference in Dallas Texas

US News and World Reports issued a press release about an upcoming STEM Summit to be held in Dallas, Texas in June 2012.  Check out this website for information on the conference.

Members of industry, academia, and policy makers are expected to attend this event to explore ways of addressing the shortage of STEM skills in our workforce, especially our future workforce.  Over the past ten years demand for workers in STEM fields has grown at a rate three times faster than the demand for workers in other industries.  That is impressive growth.  Many of these jobs are high-paying positions.  (Engineering fields always top lists of best paying jobs with bachelors degrees)  We really need to figure out why there is a lack of interest in these fields and see if this can be fixed.  Otherwise we are going to have to import more engineers from other countries to fill these positions.

My journey into engineering

If anyone had told me when I was young that I was to become an engineer, I probably would not have believed them.  In high school I really wasn’t sure what field I wanted to pursue in college and beyond.  I enjoyed my math and science classes, but I also loved music, art and creative writing.  My parents wanted me to pursue engineering, but I was having a difficult time understanding what engineers did.  I attended a program sponsored by the boy scouts that explored engineering, but it was based on designing buildings and that did not interest me much.  By the time I entered college, I had yet to make a choice so I officially declared myself “undecided” and hoped I’d figure it out eventually.

As a freshman, I toyed with the idea of majoring in either biology or chemistry.  Biology was interesting, but I couldn’t see myself working in a lab all day culturing tissues (my idea of a biology job!) and the salary prospects were not exciting.  I ended up deciding against chemistry as well and was leaning towards medicine.  The problem was that I wasn’t convinced I wanted to be a doctor.   Medical school was a huge commitment and I was convinced that if I went that route I would be stuck in the profession even if I didn’t like it.

Then one day I met another student who was doing research at the medical center on MRI machines.  This was back when MRI machines were fairly new and I thought the work he was doing was so cool!  I loved the idea of a machine that could look inside the body and see so much.  It was then that I learned about the biomedical engineering field and decided it was an excellent combination of my interests.  This was a field where I could contribute to improving peoples’ lives without being an MD.  The starting salaries of biomedical engineers with bachelors degrees were very good and the coursework sounded very interesting.  I signed up.

The biomedical engineering curriculum at the school I attended incorporated courses adapted from other engineering disciplines such as mechanical and electrical engineering.  Little did I know when I enrolled in my first circuits class that I would really enjoy it.  Electronics was a foreign field to me, but once I started studying it I was hooked.  I liked that I was learning how to make complicated devices work and “think”.  It was also an opportunity to be creative and clever in the designs.  I ended up concentrating my studies in electrical engineering and then I pursued a masters degree in electrical engineering to balance out my biomedical engineering degree and define my field of specialization.

At times I review my decision to pursue engineering and wonder how my career and life may have been different if I had pursued another career.  I am glad I did not go into the medical profession.  It is a wonderful profession and I have a true admiration for MDs, but it would not have been a good fit for me.  Engineering has been a great choice.  Engineers are in such high demand that finding a job is much easier than in other professions.  Employers often offer flexible schedules and work-from-home options to attract the best talent.  Engineering salaries always rank among that highest for professionals with bachelors degrees.  Although layoffs have become commonplace, the salaries are usually generous enough for engineers to accumulate an emergency fund in a case a layoff hits them.  Additionally, there are many engineering jobs out there (like designing artificial organs, etc) that provide the satisfaction of making a difference in the lives of others.