Monday, March 15, 2010

Math and Science

I think I have some folks with some experience as educators who stop by here occasionally so I am seeking your opinion on something today. Anyone, of course, is welcome to chime in.

It seems as if for the past couple of decades or so, our elected officials, especially on the federal level -- and I seem to remember this at least back to the Clinton administration, maybe longer-- have espoused the need for our young folks to do better in math and science if we are going to stay competitive in the world market/global economy/choose-your-impressive-sounding-phrase.

I am probably not getting this exactly right but I believe there are some statistics out there as to how we lag behind in this area and with technology such as it is today, math and science are vital.

I will not argue with that. Technology has changed so much in my lifetime that it boggles the mind. I am thankful for the folks who are wired in such a way that they can grasp all of the details required to keep all the digital stuff going.

But I am not inclined that way.

I did fine in math until about fourth and fifth grade when we got to fractions. I was able to plod through it but, not only were fractions difficult for me to understand, I also hated them. I still do. It's not personal but I really, really dislike fractions. I break out in a sweat to this day when my banker colleagues talk about interest rates.

I did OK in Algebra and Geometry but it became evident to me, as well as my parents, that I was not strong with numbers. I stopped high school math after Algebra II my junior year, which I barely passed.

It was similar with science, though not as bad. To this day I love the "idea" of science. I love to read about medicine and the human body and I have always been fascinated with outer space. I am equally fascinated by the opposing arguments over the environment and global warming. When my chlidren were little I really enjoyed helping them with their experiments they did in school such as making volcanoes.

But once the science progresses into its mixture with math, like anything beyond basic chemistry, I am woefully inept. I can do enough to get by but it is just so obvious that my inclinations are not toward this area.

In college I was in the College of Arts and Sciences and I took the basics of math and science that were required. I did OK but I completed those courses as quickly as I could.

I had a buddy across the hall from me one year, an engineering major, who had to take a Technical Writing class. To be crass, he sucked as much at written communications as I did with math and science. He brought me his papers and I edited them for him. This was one of my first "ah-ha" moments, coming to realize how we are all created differently and how we can compliment each other. He was miserable trying to put words together and for me it was (and still is) a joy. He had mild effusive celebrations when equations would balance and I would just be glad to be done.

Today, at age 52, I can add, subtract, multiply and divide, all without a calculator. When I ran a cash register years ago, I could make change without having the register tell me how to do it. I know the very basics of biology and chemistry (working crossword puzzles has helped keep my knowledge somewhat current there). I seem to function just fine with these basics. I could not balance a chemical equation, solve a theorem or whatever, or complete an algebra problem if my life depended on it. And I don't want to.

That brings me to the point of this post. Younger Son appears to be wired much as I am. He has struggled mightily with math since about fourth grade. He has had a tutor for the past couple of years. He has done a little better with science but, now in his second semester of high school chemistry, he's sweating that a bit now too.

On the other hand, he excels in English and History and has done well in Spanish also. He's writing for his high school newspaper and thinks he will major in journalism in college (as I did).

A few weeks ago he was required to select his classes for next year, his senior year in high school. He came to his mother and me and we reviewed what he would be required to take to graduate. He asked if we thought he should take math his senior year, which would be some form of trigonometry.

Younger Son has already taken the ACT and, though he defnitely didn't knock it out of the park in math and science, he showed basic proficiency. He is not anywhere near needing any kind of remedial learning. And in all the other areas he did quite well.

Wife and I mulled it over. We talked to our older two about it. I thought back to my own experience. We decided that, given what his natural inclinations appear to be and the way he has struggled, it would be just fine for him to take a couple of electives in subjects that interest him (like Creative Writing) next year rather than suffer through another year of math. For science he's going to take an ecology class that looks pretty cool.

Yesterday Younger Son shared that he met with his guidance counselor last week and she was very upset that he had not enrolled in a math class next year (even though it is not required). He told me that he explained to her that he had conferred with both of his parents and we had made the decision thoughtfully.

Apparently she went into the whole thing of how important math is and how he'll need it for college, etc. Younger Son said I should probably be expecting a call from someone at school about this.

So, I ask you: am I wrong here? Is he going to be penalized later for not taking math his senior year in high school? Should all of our young folks be forced to take as much math and science as possible because that's the way of the world these days?

And what should I say if and when I get that call from the school?


Kelly said...

Strictly an opinion here, but.... I think you made the right decision. If it isn't required, why force him to take it and be miserable?? I doubt seriously he'll need Trig to do well in whatever maths he is required to take in college if he doesn't choose a math/science field.

Just tell the counselor what you said here. They're only there to guide, not made the final decisions.

For the record, you lasted one year longer in math than I did. Alg. II wasn't required and I didn't take it. I stopped with Geometry (in which I did well... but I always liked working with shapes and space).

Bob said...

Algebra II wasn't required???? Why in the world did I take it! I did OK in Algebra I and Geometry -- even made an A a couple of nine weeks. But Algebra II ate me alive! I was redeemed Sr. year, though, when you and I got to take Spanish III/IV together! :-)

Thanks for your vote of confidence.

Even if by some miracle he decided to have a career that was more geared toward math/science (again, that is not likely) I don't think it's the end of the world if he doesn't take math his Sr. year!

quid said...

I was great in Math and I took Alg I & II, Geometry and Trig. I finished this in my Junior year. Calculus was an elective - I passed on it. I took Physical Science, Biology and Chem. Didn't bother with Physics.

In my Senior year, with no math and no science, I got to enroll in a second foreign language that I really wanted, did a creative writing course and got college credit at the local college for it, and was the yearbook Editor and won a number of prizes in debate. I did a little of everything in Drama.. act, scenery, costumes, lighting. I had a great year.

Would that we had the option to do a lot of compute studies (where most of today's math is executed by machines)... I would have loved it.

Now, a lot of time has passed. But most colleges accept kids even before they finish their first grading period in their senior year. And the test scores matter as much as the grades. I had really high test scores, so maybe those made me more confident of where I was going, what I was doing.

So, tell the guidance teacher to go to hell. You can quote me. Probably only about 30% of parents even get involved or care enough to help their college bound kids make decisions.

Education is about learning. Not fulfilling some kind of formula. He should do the kind of learning that excites him. I don't feel passionately about this, of course. :)

Don said...

I feel you made the appropriate decision. I taught for 34 years. I never gave much credence to advice given by counselors. I know that is a blanket statement, but it is my experience. I see no value to your son to further exploration of Trig, Calculus or whatever, if the aptitude or desire is not there.

Andrew said...

I think this is a wonderful post Bob, and I wish every educator and legislator would read it. We have become much too narrow in focus in American education, while making no allowance and opportunities for varied intelligences and interests.

My father has outstanding spatial and tactile intelligence. He can build or fix anything. He usually does not need direction, it is apparent to him what the next logical step is. However, I cannot get him to remember the most elementary functions of a computer. I am the opposite, for me computers are an open book, but tools and building things confuses me. With his assistance and direction, I can accomplish some things... but it is never apparent to me what the next step in a construction project would be.

We all seem to be wired in certain directions. Not that we shouldn't have some basic training in a broad array, but to keep pressing into an area one finds no joy in is madness.

My daughter is much like your son, she can keep her head above water in math, but that is about it. Her true love is verbal/interactive... she loves to read and write and do theater. I will be more than happy if she is merely competent in life-skills math. Our need to push all kids into the higher maths is just creating needless frustration.

I think it is the fact that we are so multi-cultural that drives us to try to create the same learning program for everyone. This is something mono-cultures do not have to deal with, so they have no problem sending kids into different academic tracks... but that is a blog for another time.

To answer your original question, I think you and your son made the right call.

Debby said...

Strictly an opinion here, as well. Listen Bob. Guidance counsellors are wired for just one thing: Getting a kid into college. Not all kids should go to college. Our two boys opted for technical school. Both of them are bright boys, but not bookish. One is an electrical mechanical maintenance man, and the other has a 2 year degree in Forestry. The technical school they went to was Penn State's Technical School. Penn College (and not cheap). The thing is, Dylan was really hammered for not going to college, and it was pointed out repeatedly that he was a bright boy. Yes. He is. But there are lots of different types of intelligence. Your boy has so real loves, and math is not one of them. You can force him to take it. I don't see why. The fact is, the Guidance Counsellor is handing the same generic advice out to each kid that comes through her office. You have tailored your advice so that it fits your boy, specifically. I'd tell the teacher that you appreciate her call, but you've thought about it and reached a decision. You know your boy. Your boy knows himself. It sounds like he knows in which direction he's headed. I don't think that math is going to be a big deal. If it is, well, he can always do something later.

My two cents, for what it is worth.

Debby said...

Sorry. Your boy has some real loves.

Oh, and PS, that boy that was so bright that opted not to go to college? The one that went to Penn College of Technology? Dylan's making extremely good money on the other side of the state.

Redlefty said...

I didn't take a single math course after my senior year of high school, got an MBA from a top school and make plenty of money leading multiples lines of business worth millions each.

I use forms of statistics/analytics all the time, but alegebra, trig and calculus wouldn't help me much in my job.

The sciences can be useful for me, especially psychology and neuroscience when it comes to running large teams.

Like others have already said, you're doing great supporting your son in finding his way. And his way certainly does NOT have to include concentrations in mathematics.

I married a Math major, though. Math chicks are hot.

quid said...

Sigh. I wish I would have known sooner that math chicks are hot. Does that include accountants?


Bob said...

Yes, Quid, accountants count (no pun intended). I'm married to one. They are definitely included.

Thanks to all; I really appreciate the input, especially from the educators. Have not yet received the call but I'm prepared.