Archive for category Education

Troubling Education Stats

A Right Denied is a slide deck from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. It’s full of stats that paint a pretty bleak picture about education in the United States. Some of the slides explain that there are internal inequities, where students in certain areas (or of certain races!) get worse educations than others. There are other sides that point out how the countries’ students do terribly in mathematics and science education compared to their international counterparts.

Mathematics: ultimate super power

Someone recently asked the question about what superpower their friends would like to have, could they have just one.

It seems like the majority of responses were about wanting to read the thoughts of others. I wanted teleportation, I think.

I’ve thought about it a bit since, and I think reading the thoughts of others is a terrible idea. I can barely put up with what people say, out loud, on purpose. I can’t imagine what I’d do if I had to put up with their unedited thoughts, or even the thought process that led them to say such stupid, un-insightful, or insensitive things.

Teleportation would be kind of neat. But what I really, realistically want, is to be really good at math. Really really, really good at math. RFG at math. Like, to multiply two ten digit numbers in my head, and know logarithm tables to three or four digits. And to read proofs, skimming the first few pages and able to recognize it as boilerplate, and then read the real meat of the proof and able to agree or disagree with the thesis of the proof — or to suggest better ways to make the same proof, or think of different arguments. That good at math.

That’s what I’d want.

Yahoo! thinks Olympic Math is “complex”

Yahoo! reported that Aya Yasuda was disqualified from her Olympic luge event because her sled was over weight. The story said that there was a “complex formula” to use to calculate the amount of ballast lugers can add to make up the difference between their own body weight and a maximum, which is different for men and women.

This is an equation, not a formula. And there’s nothing complicated about it; I’d expect a third grader to be able to get it right. The article here implies that the athlete is bad at math. Really, it’s just telling us that the reporter is bad at analysis.

If the error was 200 grams, and Yasuda weighs 60 kilos, then her error was only a matter of 0.33%. It’s entirely possible that her scale was off, or the official’s scale was off. Maybe she did the math correctly, but forgot to wear her gloves.

We’ll never know because Trey Kerby thought it was too complex to do the work.

The Amazing Math Challenge

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.