My wife enjoys watching The Amazing Race which is a reality game show where contestants travel to different locations and perform different challenges based on local customs or industry. For example, in Japan, you might eat some number of sushi rolls within a specified amount of time; or in Malaysia, the teams help a fisherman load his boat with fresh water buckets; or in Holland, bicycle during rush hour from your hotel to the train station.

This year, one of the challenges was terrifying. In Dubai, the contestants had the choice of visiting a jeweler. The riches of Dubai were portrayed by a store that had bars, ingots, and coins of gold on display. They also had a large monitor showing the current gold price. The contestants had a scale, and were to weigh out enough gold to equal $500,000 at the current exchange rate.

Three of the teams on the show couldn’t find the formula to compute the number of ounces at the given exchange rate to total $500,000. One team had a calculator and couldn’t get the right answer. Another team couldn’t figure out the results and had to ask an allied team for help.

This is nothing short of remarkable to me. The simple problem, resolving a rate, is a matter of dividing $500,000 by the price of an ounce. (Or, more technically, multiplying $500,000 by the reciprocal of the price per ounce to get the number of ounces–converting the units.) Be mindful that these teams didn’t know what math problem to do. It’s not that they did know what problem they wanted to do and just made a mistake with the mechanical math. They weren’t literate enough to discover the operation needed to arrive at their answer.

Engineers use math throughout their day jobs, so I might be guilty of expecting too much. Firmly, I don’t believe I could expect much less than this simple problem. That so many of these teams failed is a fact I simply find terrifying.

A few months ago, I heard an interview with Cliff Mass, a professor of meteorology at the University of Washington. He has said that the students he sees in his meteorology program are unable to use a calculator to perform operations with fractions or work with simple ratios and percentages. They weren’t familiar with simple trigonometric functions. These aren’t trick questions; they aren’t day-long applied problems. They’re things you should be able to do in your head in the grocery aisle.

Professor Mass is involved with Where’s the Math?, a program that’s trying to revitalize mathematics education in secondary schools in Washington State. I hope you can find a way to support him, or find a way to help a student in your life build a strong with mathematics.