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.

A Day in the Work Life of an Electrical Engineer

When you think of what an engineer does on a daily basis, what comes to mind?  Do you think we sit around and solve math problems all day?  Maybe you think we sit in a cube and work on our projects alone.

Well, I have to confess that I don’t perform calculations all day.  I’m sure that there are some engineers who spend time “doing the math”, but most of the calculations I do are either relatively simple or I rely on software to do it for me.

So, what is life as an engineer like?  What do I do in a typical day?  Considering that engineers aren’t typically known for their communication skills, I spend a considerable amount of time communicating via emails, in meetings and on conference calls.  Oftentimes, I am communicating with colleagues around the world.  (It gets really interesting when you have an engineer in Mexico explaining an issue to an engineer in China speaking all in English when neither of them is a native English-speaker!  I am amazed that they can understand each other, but they manage.)

The engineering work I do includes design, implementation and testing of my part of a given project.  I design both hardware (electronics – think circuit boards) and software for each project.  I review the requirements of the project (what does this need to do?) and come up with a solution.  Many of our projects are related so it is common for me to re-use pieces from old designs and then create new pieces to fulfill the new requirements.  This part of the project requires me to spend time in my office thinking, planning and drawing up my ideas.  If I hit a roadblock, it is common practice for me to go talk to other engineers in my group to see if they can offer some suggestions.  Although we work individually on projects, we often discuss our work with each other and share ideas. (We have a shared lab space and end up talking to each other quite a bit)  Around our office if someone tries out a new concept that works really well, they will be enthusiastically showing it off in the lab.

One of the great things about working with electronics is that I generally get to “play” with my design in the lab and tweak it.  You can’t really do that if you design roadways for a living.  So, when I design a circuit board, someone (a technician or factory) will build the board and send it to me.  Then the fun of troubleshooting starts.  The board gets plugged in and tested.  Then, if something doesn’t work as expected, I get to play detective and try to figure out what is going on.  Although it can be tricky to troubleshoot when the design isn’t working, I usually learn a lot from the effort. Troubleshooting sometimes requires me to be clever and creative to get to the root of the problem.

Once my design works for me and I send it out for it’s intended use, I still have to support it.  This usually results in my trying to troubleshoot problems with it remotely.  This can be challenging and frustrating, but if you can fix a problem that is happening at a factory on the other side of the world you feel like you can fix anything!

Most of my work takes place in my office or lab, with the occasional trip to a factory.  Other types of engineers do their work in other places – factories, oil fields, electrical substations, nuclear plants, to name a few.  Most of us spend at least some time in an office working in front of a computer.  To read a little bit about other engineering fields, you can check out the  Engineer Your Life website.

15-year-old student wins Intel award for developing inexpensive and accurate cancer detection test

Over the weekend I heard a story about a 15-year-old who won the Intel Science Fair competition for developing a test to detect pancreatic cancer.  The test is inexpensive and remarkably accurate.  The fact that this boy beat researchers in creating this test is truly amazing.  I was awed and inspired reading the story.  His brother has also won an impressive award in science.  It will be interesting to follow him while he attends college and beyond.

The story explains how even as a young child he was curious about the world around him and tested out how things worked.  This type of exploration and curiosity is a trait of many of the best scientists and engineers I know.  They want to know how things work and find ways to create better designs.

This is not to say that you have to be a genius to be an engineer.  You need to be curious and interested in solving problems.  This boy’s story should be inspiration as to what is possible.  Also, don’t think that a child cannot be a scientist or engineer if they haven’t solved some big problem by age 15.  I never competed in a science fair in middle or high school.  Unfortunately, my school never participated in such events.  However if a student does have an opportunity to be involved in science fairs or engineering competitions, they should take advantage of it.  These events help get students interested in science and engineering.  It helps them understand what kind of work these careers entail and whether or not it might be of interest to them.

The real major roadblock to pursuing a STEM field that I worry about is that if a student decides late in their high school years that they want to pursue such a field, they may not have taken the classes they will need.  When I was in school the graduation requirements for science and math were very skimpy: 2 years of science, 3 years of math.   Students need to complete 4 years of math and take high school chemistry and physics to really be prepared for a technical curriculum in college.  Otherwise students may have to take remedial classes (hint: extra classes = extra time & cost) before they can enter an engineering program.   If a student has even a remote interest in STEM, they should check out college entrance requirements while they are still a high school freshman so they can be sure to fulfill them.  Otherwise they may  lose opportunities down the road.

From WIE: “I Create the World. I am an Engineer”

I love this poster; by the Women in Engineering (WIE) section of the IEEE: “I Create the World.  I am an Engineer”. From providing clean drinking water to inventing artificial organs that save lives to creating technologies that allow people to connect with others on the other side of the planet, engineers really do make a difference.

I attended an event this last weekend where we inspired young girls with our passion for engineering and technology.  Two college students shared with the girls why it was that they liked engineering.  One student said she wanted to help people.  Her interest was in developing technologies to provide clean drinking water to people who don’t currently have access to it.  She believes by finding a solution to this problem she can make a difference in other people’s lives.  The other student shared that he liked to solve puzzles, and engineering problems are often just puzzles.  Science and math are two of the tools that he uses to solve these puzzles. For him, the challenge of a new problem keeps him engaged and excited about his work.

I had a friend in high school who had a passion for music, but he decided to go into electrical engineering so he could design better sound equipment for bands. I was recently inspired by a high school girl who wants to pursue aeronautical engineering because she wants to be part of space travel.

For me, engineering is an opportunity to create something new. I like working with fellow engineers to come up with new ideas and innovations and to be constantly learning. Additionally I also like the challenge of a good puzzle!

How can a high school student gain an understanding of what engineering is?

I was asked recently by a parent “How can my daughter figure out if engineering might be right for her?”  Since I didn’t know what engineering was when I was in high school, I thought this was an excellent question.

Resources do exist out there.  Some schools in large school districts offer engineering courses so students can get an idea of what engineering involves.  However, not all students have access to such programs and have to look for information and opportunities elsewhere.  Below are a few resources available for students, teachers and parents.

FIRST Robotics, BEST Robotics, and First Lego League teams – Being part of a robotics team is one of the best ways to get the “design” experience.  The teams are presented a challenge and they have to design and build a robot in a set number of weeks that performs a specific task.  It’s a lot of fun and the kids learn about the troubleshooting and redesign processes of engineering.  Students have the freedom to explore their ideas and be creative without the fear associated with failing.  In many engineering projects it takes several testing and redesigning iterations before finding something that works.  So it’s okay if your design doesn’t work the first time.  The robotics competitions give kids a chance to do some hands-on work and they may pick up a few new skills, too.  Even teams whose robot never works right still have fun and learn a lot.

Girl Scouts programs – Girl Scouts offers a number of STEM-related activities.  Engineering societies and engineering corporations often partner with scouts to offer special events that allow students to explore engineering.  Check out your local council to see what programs are available.

Society of Women Engineers – SWE sponsors many outreach events geared towards students.  You can check their Aspire website for schedules and for resources.  Most major cities have local sections that can be contacted as resources or for more information.

E-Week – E-week is a week each February devoted to engineering.  Events are held across the country at museums, engineering corporations, and schools.  There are also webcasts of events for those who cannot attend local programs.  One of the goals of the event is to educate parents, students, and teachers about engineering and share enthusiasm for the field.  If you missed the event, look up past webcasts and information on the official website: http://www.eweek.org.

Websites – Numerous websites have popped up with resources geared towards female students.  Here are a few: www.engineeryourlife.org, www.discoverengineering.org, techbridgegirls.org, nerdgirls.org.  These offer girls a chance to read about real-life female engineers, many of them young women.