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MATH: What's the Problem? — Text-only | Flash Special Report
Learning the Language of Math

Did you squeak through high school taking an absolute minimum of math? The signs of a culture lacking in basic math literacy are everywhere. The mathematically-challenged struggle with understanding the impact of compounded interest and variable-rate mortgages. They’re ill-equipped to process the modeling and predictions related to climate change, polling statistics in news reports, or the probability of winning the lottery. But most Americans don’t see math as very important–even to their children’s education. A series of surveys by Public Agenda shows that there's a real gap between leaders and the public on this issue. Here, discussing the value of math proficiency are Cora Marrett, NSF's assistant director for the Education and Human Resources Directorate;  Tony Chan, Assistant Director for Mathematical and Physical Sciences (MPS) Directorate at NSF; and David Bressoud, president-elect of the Mathematical Association of America.

TONY CHAN: You look at all the big problem that society faces from energy to climate change to even now a lot of the social sciences, if you look at how, you know, human beings interact and so on, all of them have a mathematical component to it. Math, it’s just a language of understanding the natural world. So, the more you understand, the more you want to predict, the more you want to understand the structure behind different components of that natural system.

DAVID BRESSOUD: Mathematics, at its heart, is really looking at the patterns in the world around us, numerical patterns, spatial patterns, especially, and understanding those patterns and we’re naturally pattern observers. That’s part of the human nature. I mean, that’s built into our DNA, that we look around the world around us and we try to understand what's likely to happen. One example that I think of are mathematical models of things like the fishing industry. So, why is it that the fisherman go out and for years and years they catch the fish and there are plenty of fish there and then suddenly it collapses? Well, part of what mathematics can do and has done is to build the models that enable us to understand what's going on with fish populations and the effect of this draw and we can see that there really is a tipping point. There really is a point mathematically. The model reveals to us that we need to be aware of a tipping point where suddenly the fish population is going to collapse.

CORA MARRETT: Almost any field one can think about will require levels of mathematics. This is not something anymore that is exclusively if one is going into, let’s say, mathematics teaching. If we’re going to have more people than having broad options, we’re going to have to do a lot to enhance, to strengthen what happens in math education. So, in terms of what the implications are, and the implications are profound for any field of science or engineering we’re talking about, but it’s also profound for anyone being able to lead a life of an informed citizen.

DAVID BRESSOUD: We’re not getting enough students coming out of high school who are prepared for the kind of jobs that are in the workplace, even if they’re not highly technical jobs. The fact is that they’re jobs that require decision-making and decision-making often based on numbers because we’re living in a world today, thanks to computers, that’s just inundated with data.

TONY CHAN: But I think the other reason is probably that people do not, somehow, learn or know that mathematics is actually part of the natural world. It’s useful. It’s enlightening to understand mathematics, not the technical sense, but to use that to understand the world around us. I think once people appreciate that, then I think they will be more motivated to learn about mathematics.