How to prevent math from sinking in

U.S. industry groups and politicians keep ringing alarm bells dating back to the Sputnik days: we need more scientists! In fact, we need 10,000 more engineers each year, and 100,000 new STEM teachers! That, and higher scores on standardized tests in math and science, is supposed to ensure the country’s technologic and economic supremacy.

Well, research comes to the rescue to explain why we have so few science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) graduates.
First of all, math is really, really bad for some people. It has been shown to provoke sentiments of fear upon so much as showing people some math textbooks. The brain regions activated in those instances are the same that are responsible for the perception of physical pain. We surely cannot expose innocent children to such unpleasant experiences. And does it really matter that the brain regions associated with such pain are closer to those responding to fear of social rejection, than to those relating to fear of physical threat? Even if the response is simply a conditioning received in school by instilling fear to appear dumb to one’s peers and teachers, are we to abandon much-studied math anxiety as a proximate cause of innumeracy in our society?
Studies show that it is not the act of doing math that causes anxiety, but the anticipation of having to tackle numbers operations, especially arithmetic, even in college-aged subjects. Another issue about math anxiety is that it affects girls more than boys. It just so happens that those feelings do not affect girls’ test scores. Still, everybody knows that “little engineer” is not a toy for girls. That is why girls need their own tech-savvy toys. In pink, of course. With rounded edges. No metal. And don’t forget ribbons. And a Goldilocks. With a read-along storybook, because everybody knows girls are more verbally than spatially oriented anyway.

So what about those other kids, who are neither challenged by a female brain nor affected by anxiety? Again, science comes to our rescue. Now you can simply have your child’s brain scanned to ascertain whether he will be any good at math before you even start teaching him: those with a larger right hippocampus and greater connectivity between the hippocampus and both the prefrontal cortex and the basal ganglia are shown to have more potential in math. The study says it loudly and clearly: among the huge number of 24 third-graders picked for the study, after spending two months on one-on-one tutoring to the tune of 8-9 hours a week on practicing “6+9” and such challenging problems, those with the smallest hippocampus improved only by 8 percent, while those with the largest one by as much as 198 percent. Astounding. Except that that nobody clarified what the initial skills of those children were. The law of decreasing returns can surely affect those who are already very proficient in mental math, and no amount of extra tutoring can significantly improve their speed or correctness. Another question remains why those third-graders even needed an extraordinary number of hours of tutoring in basic arithmetic operations. According to the States of Michigan and Utah, third-graders are expected to be able to do mental math adding and subtracting three-digit, not single-digit, numbers, in addition to comparable skills in multiplication, division, and basic equations. How was the sample chosen, and who designed this experiment so far removed from math skills that are appropriate for the tested age group? Another overlooked issue is that certain brain regions can indeed be developed through training (one example is juggling). It seems that this should be the job of teachers tasked with helping children develop math skills, and their brains while at it.

But not to worry, scientists found a much simpler solution than education reform: simply use electroshocks! Yes, stimulating brains with electric current improved the speed of students solving math problems by as much as 27%, and the results lasted six months. This is just what we need on those ubiquitous standardized college and graduate and professional schools tests, where senseless speed has become the key “skill” of reference because it is the only one quantifiable without introducing “subjective” elements and therefore is fairly lawsuit-proof.

In reality, however, the U.S. does not suffer from any shortage of home-grown scientists. In fact, a third of college students majors in STEM subjects, and there are three times too many of them to fill the jobs actually available in those fields. Two leading universities, Harvard and Yale, kindly publish their employment statistics for PhD graduates; looking at those numbers, it is not difficult to imagine why lower-ranked universities are not quite as forthcoming with their placement data. While job perspectives in the natural sciences are certainly better than in the humanities, as many as 17% of Harvard PhDs in natural sciences still look for a job following graduation. At Yale, 19% of them never graduate, the median time to obtain a doctorate is 5.7 years, and 28% of freshly minted PhDs in natural sciences are unemployed and actively but often unsuccessfully looking for a job. When one also considers that about half of those counted as employed are post-docs whose positions last only a few years and pay barely better than secretarial jobs in private industry, it is no wonder that 40-60% of college students change their minds about majoring in STEM subjects. 

However, the rhetoric about shortages of highly skilled workers benefits employers, who, based on this “widely known fact,” can now bring cheap foreign skilled labor into the country on H1B visas. Foreign workers not only depress wages, but are also dependent on the employer for their ability to remain in the country, which puts them in an even more vulnerable position. That would explain the enthusiasm with which U.S. industry groups support measures to alleviate the perceived scarcity of employees through immigration reform. But deploring scarcity also calls for reforms, and for more STEM students graduating from U.S. institutions of higher learning. Who will find still fewer jobs to be available with those very same employers. And so it happens that some of the minds capable of tackling mankind’s most challenging, ground-breaking challenges at new frontiers – for example aerospace engineers, mathematicians, bioscientists and others in natural sciences, end up working for the paycheck of a good New York secretary in order to be able to do what they trained for until roughly age thirty.

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