Sunday, September 23, 2007

Do we want domestically educated engineers?

In the postcript to his paper Elementary School Mathematics Priorities, W. Stephen Wilson, Professor of Mathematics at Johns Hopkins University and Former Senior Advisor for Mathematics Office of Elementary and Secondary Education - U.S. Department of Education, poses this provocative question: "Do we want domestically educated engineers?"

My response to Professor Wilson is "Yes, of course we want domestically educated engineers!"

So how do we assure that we develop the talent we need? Just take a look at what Professor Wilson has to say:

A very high percentage of the U.S. professional science, technology, engineering, and mathematics personnel are foreign born and were given their K-12 mathematics education in their home country. If we want homegrown engineers, certain things have to take place in our K-12 mathematics education system.

If students arrive at college with large gaps in their science education they can survive, college will essentially start from scratch with science, however undesirable that may be. This is not the case with mathematics. The concepts and skills developed in every year of K-12 mathematics education are essential to success in college mathematics, mathematics that engineering students must all take. Manipulative skills with numbers and rational functions have been disparaged recently in education circles. However, the engineering student will face one class after another, year after year, where the professor comes in and writes equations on a blackboard for 50 minutes straight. Those manipulative skills must be second nature in order to survive an engineering course of instruction.

Those necessary skills and concepts for the engineering student begin with the foundation discussed in this paper in early elementary school. There is a tendency to suggest that most students do not need all of these skills because most students will not become engineers. Even if this were true, and many believe that all students actually need these skills and concepts even if they are not going to be engineers, we would be in a serious quandary. Would this mean that we should not teach them to all students? Students who don’t get these skills and concepts will definitely not become engineers. So, if we want some students to be able to be engineers we have to teach these skills and concepts to these students. Is there any way to decide who in the fourth grade should be given the mathematics that would allow them to grow up to have the option of becoming an engineer? Any attempt to separate elementary school children into two groups, one group that will never have the option of becoming an engineer and another group that will be given that option, would seem grossly unfair. All elementary school children should have the option of choosing to try to be an engineer, so all children must be given the necessary mathematics in elementary school.

So, what are the necessary mathematics that all elementary school children need, you may ask. Just take a look at what Professor Wilson has to say about the "Five Building Blocks" (Numbers, Place Value System, Whole Number Operations, Fractions & Decimals, Problem Solving) here.

Keeping the doors of opportunity open: PRICELESS.


egnall said...

In the editorial found here,
the letter writer states “there is no data that traditional early math computation will foster electrical engineers and computer scientists, and more appropriately the traditional teaching of math does not appeal to the majority of students”.

I would venture to guess this person does not want domestically educated engineers, just education that is appealing and pleasant - a member of the "No hard work" crowd.

These are the same people who if given a stack of homework assignments would not be able to distinguish the TERC material or EVERYDAY MATH material from other material.

The same set of people that could not point out any ERRORS associated in those materials.

The same set of people that have seen their kids taught 5+3=8 for 3 years and thinks that repetitive DRILL is mastery.

As I said before the NMAP, I will deliver to this great nation three mathematically capable children, and their success will be in spite of reform math.

concernedCTparent said...

Wow... well I agree with one thing Ms. Swensen said, "I think it is important to remember the role of public education in a democracy." This is true, and in a democracy the door to advanced mathematics is not slammed shut in elementary school and yet, this is effectively what is happening in too many of our schools. It is not only "unfortunate that any student would feel left out of a mathematics conversation" it is undemocratic.

As to her unsubstantiated, undocumented, and flat out false statement that "There is no data that shows traditional early math computation and memorization will foster electrical enginners and computer scientists," well, she needs to do her homework. Where are the overwhelming majority of our electrical engineers and computer scientists coming from in recent years? It's not the United States.

Like you, I am also doing everything within my power to send three mathematically capable children out into the world, who will have the option to pursue the career they desire because the doors will remain open to them. I'll stand there and hold them open if it's what I must do. I find it so unfortunate that for so many children this will not be the case because their parents didn't see through the rhetoric or simply found it more convenient not to.

Dawn said...

Great post and link. At the same time as I'm working on creating two mathematically capable kids I'm working on becoming mathematically capable myself. It really helps to have resources like his paper to keep a focus on what I need to acheive in homeschooling.