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If You Can't Do the Math, You Can't Do the Science

And the math is problematic these days:

The average performance of the nation’s high school seniors dropped in math from 2013 to 2015, but held steady in reading, according to results of a biennial test released Wednesday…

“This trend of stagnating scores is worrisome,” said Terry Mazany, the chairman of the governing board for the test. Mr. Mazany is also a former public schools superintendent in California, Michigan and Illinois and is now the president of the Chicago Community Trust, a large foundation.

I always find it amazing how hard it is to convince some people that proficiency in math is a necessary prerequisite for success in science, engineering and technology.  But maybe I shouldn’t; the hippie dreamers who run the show these days first came up in an era when science and engineering were in the doghouse, a doghouse of their own making.  Personally I think the recent interest in STEM is a seriously delayed “waking up and smelling the coffee” moment; the computer and its variants have forced on them the reality that we live in a technological society.  They’re probably also thinking about the uphill battle they’ve had with evolution and global warming, but that connection is more complicated than they realise.

One of the really frustrating things about American primary and secondary education is not just that the results aren’t up to par; a system which spends as much per pupil on education should have more to show that it does.  But, when you pack your bureaucracy with administrators the way we do in this country, the money spent per pupil doesn’t really get to the pupils…


4 Replies to “If You Can't Do the Math, You Can't Do the Science”

  1. Math is powerful; math is important; some vast number of dollars are wasted on school administrators. Agreed.

    But this post takes a pretty high rationalist view of the importance of math to science, engineering, and technology. There’s a very interesting argument in _Antifragile_ by Nicholas Taleb (who is an engineering professor with an applied math Ph.D) that technical innovation springs much more from tinkering and risk taking under pressure than from grand analytic synthesis or mathematical deliberation. The core insight is that education is ordered but innovation thrives under disorder. Examples of innovation from craftsmen, hobbyists, and country reverends who owe little to theory include: the steam engine, the flying shuttle, the spinning jenny, i.e. the basis of the industrial revolution.

    Practically, this means that we ought not get too bogged down in research directed by the government and big companies. That happened in Japan, and actually drove away venture capitalists. The USSR was worse in some ways–great math and science training but major heavy handed research underperformance outside of weapons. By all means, we should fund the NIH and encourage as many suitable kids as possible to take AP Calculus, but if we build out more factories in the US and fill them with opportunistic apprentices with trade trading, we could reap big gains too. To take an example of an industry with lots of US labor still, the film business has benefited from special effects breakthroughs that rely on super advanced computer graphics and algorithms. But there’s also a lot of innovation done by graphic artists, special effects coordinators, cinematographers, directors, etc without much formal math reasoning.

    Obviously, advances in particle physics don’t work that way, but someone like E.O. Wilson barely knew calculus and still made big discoveries in biology. We need to promote math, but not create artificial barriers to other fields around it.


    1. You’ve hit on many points which I deal with on a regular basis as both an engineering educator and practitioner.

      If you’ve visited some of my other sites, you’ll see quite a lot of material on the Industrial Revolution. My ancestors and other family were deeply involved with this. All of them had good math skills. But they also had the practical skills to take the theory and make it into working reality. The problem we have today is that the two are divorced for most people; they’re either proficient at one or another. For some, one or another is all we’ll get; what we need to encourage is people who have a good mix of same. Some of the push towards educating people to work in teams is intended to address this issue but a lot of that is social engineering.

      You’ve obviously never had the thrill of having an industrial workforce, some of whom struggled with a column of figures. That was a product of weak education in the past, but it’s no more fun in the present. Our manufacturing base, such as it is, still has to deal with this problem.

      One concept (and it shows up in your comment) that’s current is that any higher math skills hinge on calculus. While I wouldn’t minimise the importance of calculus, numerical methods have shifted the needed skill set in a way that engineering education at least hasn’t addressed. My department attempted to shift away from that in its curriculum and ended up getting shot down.

      I have a great deal of personal knowledge about the old Soviet Union and its research. Its problem wasn’t that it didn’t develop workable designs; it’s problem was that the economic system didn’t permit them to be commercialised in a realistic way. And, outside of the military system, their production quality was abysmal, which erased many of the strong points of their design and analytical skills. They also were behind the curve in computerisation of the scientific and engineering process.

      My last Linear Algebra teacher was of the opinion that math was the key teacher of logical skills. I think that the concept is good; I’m not sure the pedagogy we have in this country is quite up to making that a reality for many.

      Well, I have to get back to my impending dissertation defence; you can see the progress of that effort here.


  2. Very interesting about the split between theory and implementation skills here and with the Soviets.

    Agree with you on calculus. I actually would promote statistics more especially for people heading towards business. But they should be applied in high school social science classes too IMHO. Not sure if engineering is similar.

    Weirdly, the math I would most like to learn for philosophical kicks is category theory and algebraic geometry. Allegedly, it unifies logic and geometry. Seems pretty beautiful.

    Good luck with your dissertation.


    1. Statistics are important, if for no other reason than that they are so easily manipulated. The results you get are very dependent upon the assumptions you make regarding the system you’re studying.

      There’s a lot to be learned from the old Soviet Union that has been conveniently forgotten; the current Venezuelan economic mess is one of them.


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