Sunday, September 16, 2012

Is Algebra Necessary

Adam Hayes - New York Times
On the surface this article offends me, I found out about it on CBC Radio's Sunday Edition.  Erin and I looked at one another in horror as mathematics were derided by our national broadcaster.  The calmer side of my intellect can recognize rhetoric to ignite a conversation, and maybe that is all this is.  Still I find my lost in this issue, if we abandon our demands that students learn Algebra, how can we reasonably expect them to learn other sciences.  Even many trades rely on algebra, but the article does call out a US Educator who has "Machine Room Math" as a course.  So maybe what should be called to question is not what we teach but how.  

At the University of Guelph, the calculus word problems were always conspicuously agrarian in example, as the only University in Ontario teaching Agriculture (and don't make that face, if you want to be a good farmer it actually is a both physically and mentally demanding job, more then worthy of a degree granting institution.  PS Farmers Feed Cities!)  So perhaps it is condescending to phrase your classic calculus problem in terms of optimizing the area of a barn yard to maximize the grazing area for cattle, but while the content of the course is the same the metaphor for teaching it makes it simpler for the students by touching on something that the experientially understand. 

So, while I'm leery of giving up math, as I see it is directly related to all the sciences, maybe the key is that we need ensure our students have numeracy, and science literacy first, and then more complex topics later.

My own concern, and this is paternalistic, there are a number of pressures facing students in high school, not the least of which is the need for good grades to enter university and qualify for scholarships.  There are also the pressures from our friends to be smart, but not to be a nerd (heaven forfend).  Many a student if given the choice between I dare say "easy math" vs the more complex subjects, may choose the route that seems easiest, and by the time that students is recognized for an aptitude for STEM disciplines, they may have already have put those areas of study beyond their own reach by failing to accumulate the prerequisites.  Only the most dedicated will make the switch, as additional years of learning can be prohibitively expensive.

Back to what I mentioned about science litaracy though, it is a long time joke around that house that Erin and I are both Mathamaticians, that is clearly not a stretch for a computer scientist, but you say "Erin is a Microbiologist, and Biochemist?"  Well as the joke goes, biology is applied chemistry, chemistry is applied physics and physics is applied math, QED.  

Randall Munroe - XKCD
So the issue with science is that it is startling how little people know or understand about science, and how in their ignorance how they are tricked.  First off lets just gesture to the heated war between science and religion all over North America, where we dare not speak the E word for fear of offending, but if those same people maybe attended and paid a little more attention in Biology,  they may be able to parse the language on the bottles of snake oil that is being sold to them and appreciate how absurd things like homeopathy are.  Or that absurdity of Autism being induced by vaccination, as opposed to the much more desirable out come like less infant death and horrible disease.  

I'm not going to go about gesticulate wildly or go on any more tirades, like how denying vaccination is child abuse (oh wait there I go again) I just wanted some firm examples about how people fundamental lack of understanding of biology alone leaves them vulnerable to manipulation by self proclaimed experts, as these people lack the tools to critically analyze the information against a frame of reference.

So in summation:
1. Math good, teach math gooder, not less
2. Educate for the sake of education, not as a means to a job (the article talks to that better then I did justice)
3. Teach people to live in our complex world, it isn't going to get simpler, and closing your eyes is not going to work.