Happy September … and Americans Still Don’t Like Math
13 September 2013

by tmartin on September 15, 2013

AMERICANS, IN GENERAL, DON’T LIKE MATH. And they haven’t for … well … an awful long time.

Some people think this puts the US at risk.

If we, as a country, don’t start shoveling science and math into our students, pretty soon the center of the business universe may lie – cue ominous music! – SomeWhere Else.

The most recent flurry of handwringing about education and US competitiveness falls into a grouping called “STEM Education.”

STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math.

Dr. Judith A. Ramaley coined the term when she was 
Assistant Director/Directorate for Education
at the National Science Foundation in the early 2000s. The term STEM proved itself as an easy-to-remember, concise, and pleasant sounding acronym for a large basket of skills

STEM has since been championed by a range of business and government entities. It got propelled to the forefront by the 2007 National Academy of Sciences Report, Rising Above the
 Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing 
America for a Brighter Economic Future (http://www.nap.edu/catalog.php?record_id=11463) .

This 500-page document proposed concrete approaches for industry, government, research and education and began with the dire warning:

    Without high-quality, knowledge-intensive jobs and the innovative enterprises that lead to discovery and new technology, our economy will suffer and our people will face a lower standard of living…

Yikes. Wouldn’t that scare you, too?

These alarms have drawn response, along with more than a little confusion over exactly what STEM includes and who holds responsibility for it.

In 2012 the Congressional Research Service, in its STEM Primer, reported that some 105 to 252 STEM education programs were under way at 13 to 15 federal agencies. Annual federal appropriations for STEM education ranged from $2.8-$3.4 Billion, the majority of that money going to postsecondary schools and the remainder to K-12.

Despite all this, we’re still struggling to inspire young people to enter STEM careers. And we still don’t like math.

But, like that extra 20 pounds we’re packing on our waist, we didn’t get here over night.

That’s why former CIO Magazine publisher Gary Beach’s new book The US Technology Skills Gap: What Every Technology Executive Must Know to Save America’s Future (http://www.amazon.com/Gary-J.-Beach/e/B00CKYHS9K) comes along at a good time to add historical perspective to this whole debate – and to add its own ideas for solutions.

Beach begins in 1909, when America’s antipathy toward all things STEM already appears. Fast forward to WWII and young men who are so unskilled in basic STEM skills that the Army has to implement special remedial programs. And it only goes downhill from there.

The postwar baby boom put tremendous pressure on public education. Schools couldn’t keep up with the demand and franticly hired teachers, dropping professional standards in a desperate effort to find warm bodies to work with the overflowing classrooms. Meanwhile, an academic battle raged between “what” to teach vs. “how” to teach.

The result, he writes, was that:

    Baby boomers were the unfortunate victims of a public education system that was unprepared for them … Their own education made it harder for them to inspire subsequent generations of Americans to understand and excel at math and science.

By the time the 1980s came along, America was no longer so certain of its place in the economic pecking order. Japan, embracing the statistical approach of a US researcher that the US ignored – Dr. W. Edwards Demming (https://deming.org/theman/overview) – left the US car industry in the dust. Large manufacturing – increasingly reliant upon technical skills – staggered.

By the time the turn of this century arrived, pundits amped up their worries about the future of the entire innovation industry. Today, as globalization and a world changed by digital interconnectedness continues spins us all every more together, the gaps in education appear larger and larger.

Hit the pause button. Rewind. Take a moment to ride the way back machine to 1945. The war effort is winding down. Vannevar Bush, Director of the Office of Scientific Research and Development, responds to President Roosevelt’s inquiry about scientific knowledge.

The president has asked four questions including:

    Can an effective program be proposed for discovering and developing scientific talent in American youth so that the continuing future of scientific research in this country may be assured on a level comparable to what has been done during the war?

In Science The Final Frontier (well worth a read if you’ve not seen it before: http://www.nsf.gov/od/lpa/nsf50/vbush1945.htm) Bush replies:

    A nation which depends upon others for its new basic scientific knowledge will be slow in its industrial progress and weak in its competitive position in world trade, regardless of its mechanical skill …

    Improvement in the teaching of science is imperative; for students of latent scientific ability are particularly vulnerable to high school teaching which fails to awaken interest or to provide adequate instruction …

No, we didn’t get to our current STEM “crisis” overnight. We’ve been working at it for multiple generations now. Oh, and did I mention that Americans still don’t like math?

So maybe that is the crux of the issue: why don’t Americans like math? Why – despite talks of well paying jobs – do only a small fraction of young people study STEM and follow career paths in STEM specific fields?

Perhaps, in part, because our larger system throws out mixed messages about it.

As Beach pointed out, US education philosophy is highly politicized. Since the Department of Education – which we may or may not even need depending upon who you listen to – was founded in 1979, the US has had six different education plans, with different foci and approaches. That’s a lot of zigging and zagging.

And our schools remain stuck in the industrial era, using outmoded factory models for both students and teachers. In the digital era, this approach is flat out broken, says Beach.

“If we want professional teachers and professional results, we need a professional workplace,” he writes, as part of his call to action.

But I think there might be more to it than that … and I think that despite the surface zig-zags, as a society we have been more consistent than we want to admit: we always choose style over substance and we’re always looking for the quick fix rather than the long haul.

Beach shares a similar conclusion, one which he neatly conveys using an ancient Chinese proverb — which effectively sets a framework for today’s very modern STEM debate:

    If you want one year of prosperity grow grain

    If you want ten years of prosperity grow trees

    If you want one hundred years of prosperity grow people

As a collective, we act like impatient four-year-olds, a behavior that society continues to reward and reinforce. By and large, we haven’t had the commitment to grow people.

We simply don’t venerate academic achievement, long-term payoffs, or things that don’t sparkle pretty. The past few decades of political debate have almost made education a negative. You can get bonus points for being “dumb” with math.

We want the STEM “problem” fixed … in year. We want to measure its outcome in sparkly dollars and cents. We’ll force feed this science down every kids throat because it’s good for the bottom line.

No wonder American kids learn to hate math!

Everyday I see the K-12 system in action. I’ve been blessed to be able to watch the way a great teacher can inspire all kinds of kids to want to learn more – about math, about science, about any of a million aspects of the world. It is the coolest thing. Ever.

But I’ve also watched the flip side, for example, where physics – a quintessential STEM topic that studies of how the mechanics of the world work – gets turned from exciting explorations full of fun into pure painful drudgery with a side dollop of angst and self-doubt. And I want to cry, because I count the heads in that class and watch them flee and wonder what we’ve lost … and wonder how many times this same scene plays out year after year in thousands and thousands of schools.

Is America at risk because we don’t love math? I don’t know. But — without a doubt — we are at risk if we don’t show by example and teach with intent how to think, how to question, how to explore, how to try, how to seek answers and unravel problems, and how to have fun with it all.

STEM isn’t about memorizing the quadratic equation. When that’s all it is, we’ve already lost the hearts and minds and the things that really matter.

STEM isn’t only for special “smart” kids or “rich” kids or “boy” kids. When that’s all it is, we’ve already lost part of our future.

STEM is part of what we are, who we are, and what we can all become. Hmm, maybe math isn’t so bad after all.

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