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 Published Saturday, November 4, 2000

Math teachers are working a new version of an old problem

Sharon Schmickle / Star Tribune

Whether the education stopped with dividing the big number into the little number or extended to elaborate dances with infinity, mathematics classes over the years generally have involved plugging numbers into equations and then cranking.

Now, when computers can do much of the cranking, it turns out that math skills are more subtle and looming more important than ever. Thus math-education leaders are organizing the first major review since 1981 of the basic approach to teaching the subject to college students.

And 33 prominent science and mathematics professors from around the nation are meeting at Macalester College in St. Paul this weekend for one thrust in that effort, led by the Mathematical Association of America.

Although specific recommendations aren't planned until next year, some of the association's ideas already are being deployed on campuses. Within a few years, the proposed overhaul is expected to reach millions of college students nationwide.

The basic problem has nagged at colleges for years. Students show up knowing less about math than ever before, yet they need more math than ever, said Prof. David Bressoud, who heads Macalester's Mathematics and Computer Science Department.

Regardless of whether students and their professors realize it, math surrounds them -- even in such unlikely fields as politics, music and physical education.

Math isn't the only field struggling to keep up with changes fueled in part by computer advances. Biologists need sophisticated computational skills to make sense of strings of DNA.

Even art can involve reducing colors to numbers on a computer image that can be manipulated in real-life dimensions.

Changing attitudes

A central goal of the mathematics project is to break down barriers between math departments and other academic programs that need mathematics.

Too many mathematicians in academia long have had the attitude that their purpose was to train people to get Ph.D.s in mathematics and "anything that happened beyond that was peripheral," Bressoud said.

Some visionaries realized in the 1970s -- as slide rules gave way to calculators, which then began giving way to computers -- that such attitudes had to change.

Proposals that emerged in 1981 had little impact, though, until the late 1980s, when it became clear that math education was in "a crisis," Bressoud said. Students bound for majors in engineering, chemistry and other fields were failing calculus or passing it with little understanding of the basic concepts behind the problems they solved.

The result was a "calculus reform movement" in the 1990s, which, in addition to teaching traditional equations, emphasized such skills as expressing problems graphically, using writing to spur critical thinking and incorporating technology in the classroom.

Building on that experience and other signals that they were losing relevance, several professional organizations for mathematicians have been working to steer their discipline toward a "bigger-picture" approach that could better teach students the concepts behind their number-crunching exercises and could help them see math as something not just for its own sake but often for the tools and insights it can bring to other fields.

As part of that effort, the Mathematical Association, with funding from the National Science Foundation, organized 11 workshops nationwide to bring science and social-science professors into the process for planning a major overhaul of college math education. The meeting at Macalester emphasizes math needs in chemistry and biology, while meetings elsewhere will focus on other fields.

Meeting resistance

Although the association's recommendations generally are respected and followed on campuses, the effort is meeting resistance from two fronts, said Prof. Louis Gross, who directs the Institute for Environmental Modeling at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville.

Many math professors worry that reformers are "dumbing down" traditional standards. And an Old Guard in disciplines that the reform is intended to reach -- biology, for example -- argues that more math isn't needed.

Gross sent a sharply worded warning to such critics in a recent article he wrote for the journal Science. Classified ads in Science alone, he said, illustrate a great demand for biologists with mathematical and computational skills. The same is true in other fields as companies and universities suffer severe shortages of mathematically skilled workers.

"Educators worldwide need to take account of new market forces if they wish to train their students to be adequately prepared for the demands of modern research," he wrote.

The reform addresses two challenges, Gross said. First, math professors need to show students meaningful applications of the material they are learning, and the effort must go beyond tossing a few biology-oriented problems into a calculus assignment. Second, professors in other disciplines need to follow through with more math in their classes because -- say what you will about old-fashioned math learning -- repetition still is a key.

Prof. Theresa Zielinski, who heads the Department of Chemistry, Medical Technology and Physics at Monmouth University in West Long Branch, N.J., adds a third goal:

At its best, mathematics inspires the kind of intellectual passion that the pursuit of art, poetry and some sciences do, she said. In reaching out to other disciplines, mathematicians have an opportunity to raise that potential to a higher level.

Think of it as an opportunity, she said, to express math in the multimedia dimensions that appear in the modern theater, where a playwright might work with painters or filmmakers.

"It's mind-expanding for both sides," she said.

If it's done well, the whole will be greater than the sum of the parts, she said, "just as an opera is greater than the sum of the orchestra, the singers, the sets and the plots."

Sharon Schmickle can be contacted at sschmickle@startribune.com


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