Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Career Day - Mathematics

Rebecca, an applied mathematician blogs for advice about giving a talk on Math Careers at a local middle school.

This is a "been there, done that" for me in my past life (as a grad student helping give tours of our physics lab to elementary school kids and as a research scientist doing the same in an applied math shop or in schools), but I now have a very different perspective from what I see advising students entering our CC.

First, do your best to represent the category "PhD Mathematician". They don't know that you have done research and discovered something that, literally, no one else in the entire world knew until you did it and published it. You are not an actor playing a scientist, you are not a "teacher", you are a REAL Mathematician. You could be the first person they have met who has a PhD. Make sure you are introduced as "Dr. Rebecca".

Check out a recent press release on the "geeky" image of math and its effect on enrollment in that area in the UK. The same is probably true in the U.S.

Second, show them something cool. Visual. High tech. You work with computers that, again, are more amazing than anything made up for TV. Boggle their minds, and then share with them your own insecurity about being able to do anything back when you were in middle school. "I did it, you can do it." And make it clear that you enjoy what you are doing. You get paid to do things that you think are fun! How cool is that?

Third, be real clear that the "it" they can do does not have to be Real Math. You aren't there to sell this career to everyone, but you need to sell them on learning as much math as they can handle in high school if they want one of those famous "high paying jobs" like the business majors working for Donald Trump, or Dr. House, etc. Business majors need to take "business calculus" and pre-med, pre-dent, or pre-vet biology majors need to take "real calculus" and "real physics". Same for most pharmacy and architecture majors (whether they really need to know it or not). If they spend four years in high school slacking their way through "basic algebra" and "consumer math", just enough to get the credits required for graduation, they will face an uphill battle in college. We see it every day here at this CC, and I'm sure they also see it at universities.

Example from my Dorm Days:
My freshman roommate was a biology major. From all appearances, he was a pretty good biology student. He had taken everything his (small town) high school had to offer, then done independent study projects (including decent science fair projects). He knew all sorts of hard-to-memorize facts and botanical names, etc etc. But he knew squat about math, and flunked out of college in the two years it took for him to fail calculus twice after needing multiple tries to pass college algebra and trig. Sadly, a big part of this were "student centered" teachers and counselors. He was good at biology and didn't like math, so they let him take extra biology instead of math during his last two years. That made him real happy ... until he got to college and learned that biology majors take calculus.

If he had started at our CC, he would have worked through a slower sequence of math classes and might have had a chance to improve his skills enough to pass calculus. The university course pretty much assumed you had taken a solid class in algebra 2 and trig, but simply forgot most of it. Maybe he did go back home to a local CC and manage to succeed in his career goals, but he was a fish out of water at the university.

Example of a typical CC business student:
The ones with good SAT scores are (mostly) at the university, so we get the ones who passed high school and did OK on the "high stakes" exit exam but can't get into a university. That usually translates into "weak math". The typical student has to start out in a course that is the equivalent of the Algebra 1 class we took in 9th grade. That student is looking at two full years of math (that remedial class, then college algebra, then business calc, then statistics) plus two accounting courses. One standard deviation up and we have the kid who starts in college algebra. One standard deviation down and we have the kid who starts in a basic (7th grade?) algebra class (the one where the kids are afraid of letters). Those kids are looking at two and a half years of math IF they manage to pass each class on the first attempt, which is rare. (Having been lied to about how good they are at math, they usually don't take the class very seriously and fail it the first time they take it.)

The weakest ones almost always wasted two years in high school on some variant of "liberal arts" or "consumer" math. The ones who struggled through an algebra 2 class instead will usually make it, although they have to start in algebra 1.

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