“In the future, there will be only two kinds of people: people who know math and people who work for them.”

These words were said to me a few years ago by a colleague at Accenture, and they came back to mind as I looked over a presentation made by Dr. William Jaco, a mathematician at Oklahoma State University, at a 2013 meeting of the American Mathematical Society. Dr. Jaco’s presentation touched on an issue that I have been thinking about for a long time: how to rethink mathematics education for a future workforce that will increasingly depend on math, especially statistics, to do almost any job that will pay a good wage.

Dr. Jaco’s presentation, entitled “Mathematical Preparation of the Future Workforce,” makes four basic claims:

  • Mathematical sciences are increasingly an integral and essential component of science, technology, economics, social sciences, and national competitiveness.
  • Mathematical scientists, for the most part, remain unaware of the expanding role of mathematics and of the needs in mathematics education, thereby limiting the community’s ability to respond.
  • Mathematical sciences must adapt to the evolving and expanding needs in the mathematical preparation of the future workforce.
  • Mathematical sciences must attract and produce more broadly trained mathematical sciences majors.

I can’t think of anyone who would dispute his first point. There has been a continued and serious “quantification” of disciplines such as economics, medicine, marketing and even film-making over the past decades. The second point would be evident to anyone who has been part of an academic faculty. Academic mathematicians — and, to be fair, the same can be said of many other disciplines — are often not very aware of, or concerned with, the role that their field plays in more widespread careers.

Distribution of intended careers of all Calculus 1 students. (N=11,466). Source: William Jaco, PhD

Distribution of intended careers of all Calculus 1 students. (N=11,466).
Source: William Jaco, PhD

Anyone who looks over the typical math curriculum at a top-flight university soon notices that the mathematical education trajectory is one built primarily for people pursuing intensely math-driven specialties. Moreover, the basic courses are really filters, designed to weed out non-mathematicians as quickly as possible. As Dr. Jaco notes. fewer than 9% of students who take basic college Algebra ever register for Calculus I and fewer than 1% go on to enroll in Calculus III. Of the students who do enroll in Calculus I, fewer than 10% are in Math or Physical Sciences majors and only 2% of these plan to major in Math specifically.

The results of this situation are that most non-math major receive very little mathematical education and math majors themselves are driven to a narrow and extremely technical focus that leaves behind broader areas in which they could apply their training. Dr. Jaco suggests three major shifts in mathematical education that would help alleviate these issues. First, “college Algebra should not be a general education Math course.” In other words, whereas today Algebra I is the first step into college-level mathematical training, in the future another course — perhaps one with a broader focus on the application of mathematical concepts and techniques in other fields — should be the “gateway” into math for non-math majors. Dr. Jaco’s second recommendation is that “alternate mathematics pathways should be developed for different degree/career goals.” In other words, universities should replace today’s all in/all out approach to math education with alternate paths that allow multi-year track of mathematical training specifically designed for non-math majors. I can easily imagine “pathways” for business, film and pre-law majors, for example. His third suggestion is that “alternate degree options should be developed for the mathematics major.” This is another excellent suggestion. Math departments should expand their focus from just training future professional mathematicians to training mathematicians who will work across a broad spectrum of fields. Today, that mental shift is left to that small percentage of math majors who make it at an individual level. In the future, Math departments could easily offer “integrated” math degrees: math for life sciences, math for analytics, math for computing, etc.

Dr. Jaco’s recommendations should get wide discussion and consideration. As he notes, today’s pedagogical model is discouraging too many bright students from extending their mathematical studies in college beyond Algebra and constraining math majors unnecessarily. This is a shame, for, as he notes, “losing students in calculus and STEM majors is a great cost to our nation’s intellectual and scientific well being.” He’s right, and it’s time a courageous Math department took a step back, looked at the shifting and increasingly critical role of math in general society, and then reinvented itself in light of this broader social context.

Someone once asked me if I could go back to college, what I my major be the second time around. The answer was easy: mathematics. It’s the broadest, most applicable, and in many ways purest of fields. It’s applications and value are infinite. Its appreciation and applications are almost beautiful in many situations. Consequently, I hope Math educators embrace Dr. Jaco’s suggestions. The future is theirs for the taking, if they are willing to step up to challenge.

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Posted by Carlos Alvarenga

Carlos Alvarenga is the Executive Director of World 50 ThinkLabs and an Adjunct Professor at the University of Maryland's Smith School of Business.

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