December 10th, 2013 by Dan Meyer
A growing number of schools are helping students embrace STEM courses by linking them to potential employers and careers, taking math and science out of textbooks and into their lives. The high school in Brooklyn known as P-Tech, which President Obama recently visited, is a collaboration of the New York City public school system and the City University of New York with IBM. It prepares students for jobs like manufacturing technician and software specialist.
Though many of these efforts remain untested, they center around a practical and achievable goal: getting students excited about science and mathematics, the first step to improving their performance and helping them discover a career.
Pick any application of math to the job world and I promise you I can come up with 50 math problems about that application that students will hate. Get a little coffee in me and I'll crank out 49 more. It's that one problem, the one out of 100 that students might enjoy, that's really tricky to create, and often times its "real world"-ness is its least important aspect.
Chris Hunter reminds me (via email) that the British Columbia Institute of Technology has made a similar bet on "real-world" math. Here's an example:
Once again, we're asking students to substitute given information for given variables and evaluate them in a given formula. Does anyone want to make the case that our unengaged students will find the nod to structural engineering persuasive?
The "real world" isn't a guarantee of student engagement. Place your bet, instead, on cultivating a student's capacity to puzzle and unpuzzle herself. Whether she ends up a poet or a software engineer (and who knows, really) she'll be well-served by that capacity as an adult and engaged in its pursuit as a child.
Chris Hartmann points out that these application of math to jobs often miss the math that's most relevant to those jobs:
And, in the job world a lot of the mathematics isn’t done by human minds or hands anymore, with good reason. Faster, more accurate means are available using technology. What often remains is puzzling out the results.
The telling thing is that the Times’s example of a real world problem that real world people can’t solve, that of calculating the cost of a carpet for a room, is pretty much a guaranteed loser for any math class that I have ever taught at any level.
On the other hand, yesterday I had a room full of third round algebra students engrossed in building rectangles with algebra tiles. That’s about as non real world as it gets.
The moment of inertia for rotating a I-beam about its long axis has no practical relevance in structural engineering. This is a fake-world problem, of no interest either mathematically or to engineers.
There are real-world applications for moment of inertia problems, but this is not one of them.
This seems to be a perennial favorite. In 2011 the Times asked if we needed a new way to teach math, with this quote:
“A math curriculum that focused on real-life problems would still expose students to the abstract tools of mathematics, especially the manipulation of unknown quantities. ”
I’m certain I could find an example of such an article from every few years …