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Thursday, November 06, 2008

Nerds continue to find strength in numbers

By Dick Hirsch

If summoned to testify, I will assert my position in the strongest possible manner, as follows: I am not now, nor have I ever been, a nerd.

Of course, nerdship is seldom a sought after characterization, and it is usually conferred not by the subject, but by others in a position to form an opinion about the subject person. But I think I know myself well enough and have been around long enough to reach that conclusion without fear of starting an argument.

The subject of nerds became a hot news item recently when the American Mathematical Society published the results of a new study strongly criticizing the methods employed in the teaching of math and the results achieved in math classes at schools in the US.

Although the study was just released and includes considerable new data, I could have predicted the findings, based on my own experiences. I never had much skill in mathematics, starting with arithmetic and struggling my way through algebra, geometry, trigonometry and ending my daunting and unfortunate run as a college freshman with calculus. What a relief it was when they posted the final grades in that course and I realized I had passed my last math course.

At each step of the way over those formative years, I was tortured by nerds. They didn’t do it purposely. It was just the ease with which they dealt with the most complicated problems and the understanding way they entered into class discussions. They knew what was going on. It was very aggravating. They were in the minority at my schools, but they were very influential. I was on the other side, the larger group of students who could be described by teachers as “also attending were...”

My only salvation was that I perfected the rudiments of spelling and sentence writing, then moved on to paragraphs and whole compositions, and was able to make a happy life for myself without worrying about numbers, except at tax time. The teachers of math at every level must surely recognize that most of their high school classes are filled with students like that, students who would prefer to be someplace, anyplace, else. It has always been that way.

The recent study found that many girls have exceptional ability in math but are never encouraged to pursue that interest. While they have the talent to become engineers, scientists or math researchers, they rarely consider those fields because talent in math is undervalued in the US. I remember a girl named Paula who sat next to me in trigonometry class and amazed me as she calculated sines, cosines and tangents without any fuss whatsoever. She was willing to help me whenever I seemed perplexed, which was often. If she had been encouraged, who knows, she could have been teaching physics or practicing civil engineering.

The study found that many of the best math students are immigrants or children of immigrants from countries where math skills are recognized and encouraged.

“We’re living in a culture that is telling girls you can’t do math, that’s telling everybody that only Asians and nerds do math,” said Dr. Janet E. Mertz, a medical school professor at the University of Wisconsin and the lead author of the study.

The math news made an immediate impression on me because I had been browsing through my copy of the 1867 Report of the Superintendent of Public Schools of Buffalo. I received it as a gift several years ago and always wondered how long I would keep it before disposing of it. In it I found some of the type of puzzlers which terrified me in the old days and certainly must have made pupils uncomfortable in 1867. For example:

“John’s age is two-thirds of William’s, and the sum of their ages, diminished by five, is equal to 60; what is the age of each?” Here is another: “If nine oranges will buy 36 apples and four apples will buy one lemon, how many lemons will three oranges buy?” Or, how about: “A man bought a horse for $100, nine-tenths of what he paid for the horse is six-elevenths of what he paid for his carriage; what was the price of the carriage?”

It surprised me to learn as long ago as 1867 teachers were intimidating students with questions like those and saddened me to think over century later they are still using variations of the same theme.

If I spent the rest of the day, I’m sure I could so some figuring and find the answers, but, as always, I have more important things to do.


At 3:55 PM, Blogger David said...

3 lemons!


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