Don't Gripe about Math Scores; Boost Them!

September 08, 2003

There's been a lot of talk lately about lack of math and science acumen among our high school and college graduates. Largely, all that talk is right. So, we should stop talking and do something about it, and engineers should take the lead.

First, a few facts from current research. Bayer Corp. recently published a study on whether and why the public thinks math and science are important. The conclusion: They do think they're important and the reason is homeland security. Respondents overwhelmingly said poor scores in math and science may negatively impact the nation's security and economic prosperity.

The National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES) published a study that came to the same general conclusions, and indicated that math and science proficiency may actually get worse as students progress through their school years. The study showed that fourth graders perform above the international average in math and science, but12th graders perform below that average.

And that same study concluded that minorities and girls do even worse than their white and male counterparts.

A 1999 NCES report indicates that 41% of freshman at two-year colleges and 22% at four-year institutions are enrolled in remedial math and science classes. I can vouch for those findings. I taught at a community college in Illinois for a semester and found that most of the students-plant maintenance personnel-were math and science illiterate. Their bosses-the plant engineers and managers-were more illiterate, especially when it came to fluid power fundamentals. I spent most of the course time teaching basic math and physics fundamentals.

Why are U.S. students so ill prepared? Textbooks, curriculum, and teachers.

NCES and a panel of independent judges graded U.S. textbooks on 24 instructional criteria. They found only 6 out of 13 math books and none of 9 science books passed.

The judges found the curriculum in U.S. schools are highly repetitive, contain too many topics, provide inadequate coverage of important topics, focus on low-level skills, and provide few opportunities for students to engage in high-level mathematical thinking. This finding is supported by a team of mathematicians who, in 1995, found 87% of eighth-grade math and science lessons in U.S. classrooms were low quality, as compared to only 13% in Japan. You get the point. We have to do something.

Forget referendums on education. They're being turned down in many places. Instead, engineers, scientists, business owners, and industry leaders need to come together on a collective strategy to reach parents, educators, and students-from kindergarten through high school and beyond. Bayer Corp. has a program that provides hands-on learning for students at 15 Bayer sites around the country. Others should copy it.

Beyond that, companies could form partnerships with such leaders as LEGO, which has training modules that help kids learn.

Every industry hosts trade shows. We could offer students free field trips to those shows. And, we could take instruction into school districts.

Baseball has developed reading incentives for schools. Read x amount of books and you get to take your school to a baseball game. Why not develop a similar program that takes a school to an amusement park or science museum to see science in action?

If we don't begin to reach out in a more strategic way, we will all be the losers.

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