Demonstrating the importance of math

Leland Anderson is an assistant principal and Director of Distance Education at American Heritage School and Family Education Center in American Fork, Utah, and holds degrees from Harvard and Brigham Young University. He calls on the adults in students’ lives — parents as well as teachers — to take a more active role in demonstrating math’s importance in everyday life:
“A few years ago, I listened to Harvard Business Professor Clayton Christensen relate his concern about math education, engineering and innovation in the United States and other prosperous countries. In his presentation, Christensen observed that significant prosperity in one generation, regardless of the country, often correlates with relaxed attitudes toward advanced math study in the succeeding generation, in part because the succeeding generation perceives that prosperity is assured. Although prior generations were initially less prosperous, they were more motivated to develop advanced-math proficiency, which they viewed as a ‘ticket’ to future prosperity. Christensen also noted that motivation to persevere through advanced math courses tends to wane as populations become more prosperous. Christensen affirms that this effect is being seen now not just in the U.S.A. but also in Japan, Korea and Hong Kong as those parts of the world become increasingly prosperous. A concise four-minute recorded discussion of this topic by Clayton Christensen is available here.
“I believe the current motivational deficit in advanced math studies that Christensen identifies can be remedied through positive adult attitudes and student interactions with successful role models who use math for altruistic outcomes.
“A significant cultural victory contributing to improved math instruction in the United States would be accomplished by more adults’ explicitly exemplifying appreciation for advanced math and science as highly worthwhile subjects. By hearing parents, teachers and other adults talk positively and interestedly about math and science, students begin to adopt attitudes of appreciation, curiosity, and interest. This is as predictable as the natural tendency for children to adopt the values of their parents. Thus, parents, teachers and school leaders should talk to students with increased enthusiasm for advanced math. For example, students should hear more parents, teachers (of all subjects), and administrators declare, ‘Calculus is wonderful. It is an amazing subject, the mastery of which can empower you to contribute tremendous good to the world. You can do it, and your math teacher or I can help you!’ I recently heard a math teacher quip to another teacher in the presence of students, ‘Life begins with Calculus!’, relishing the world view of a mathematician and engineer — filled with seemingly endless scientific applications.
“Putting students in frequent contact with men and women of great mathematical and scientific accomplishment, and who also demonstrate altruistic character, is a powerful motivator in fostering healthy educational attitudes toward math and science. Booker T. Washington, an African American who grew up during the post-Civil War ‘Reconstruction Era,’ noted, ‘The older I grow, the more I am convinced that there is no education which one can get from books and costly apparatus that is equal to that which can be gotten from contact with great men and women.’ In line with this statement, parents, teachers and administrators can invite highly competent scientists, engineers and mathematicians to speak to students specifically about satisfying career possibilities that are available to them through advanced math studies. Such role models can help increase student motivation by providing vision and relevance that students have difficulty seeing on their own. Although most students can easily imagine how basic math skills are important for functional and successful living, many students cannot imagine — without explicit aid — how algebra and calculus can lead to enjoyable work. Many students view advanced math as a drudgery at least in part because they have a limited view of advanced-math-intensive careers and their real-world impact.
“Imagine the vision imparted to middle school students who are visited several times each year by math and science professionals from the larger community. One professional might be an electrical engineer from L3 Communications, a Utah-based defense communications and engineering firm employing several thousand engineers and scientists that specializes in government military contract work. The L3 visitor sparks students’ imaginations by describing some of the problems solved by L3 — such as how to keep Air Force jets in contact with their bases and avoid potentially catastrophic blips in communication when a jet quickly rolls upside down during certain flight maneuvers — and then the engineer connects this to other intelligence problems solved by L3 and the personal satisfaction of knowing that L3 works deliberately to help save lives through complex communication system engineering (one of L3’s internal mottos among electrical engineers is ‘We Save Lives — a wonderful and positive view of defense engineering!).
“Another visitor might be a recent graduate of the University of Utah’s Biomedical Engineering program whose current research with Neural Networks, Robotics Intelligent Systems, Virtual Reality and Computer Vision can be described and depicted in exciting ways that inspire the students to pursue advanced mathematical studies so that they, too, may join the exciting and fulfilling career possibilities of developing life-saving, bio-medical technologies.
“Parents, teachers and administrators should collaborate to arrange for students to meet mathematicians, scientists and professors who can inform them of math applications and inspire them to take on advanced mathematical studies in preparation for life-long service — an emotional appeal that inspires middle and high school-age students.
“While many additional ways to make math instruction increasingly relevant, student-centric, and interactive exist — and these definitely deserve discussion, examination and application — sincere adult encouragement and frequent contact with great mathematicians and scientists are two actionable steps that can immediately, widely and inexpensively augment student motivation toward success in advanced math studies.

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