Science, math skills, and high school students


There was a diversity of visceral reactions to EO Wilson’s op-ed piece, which argued that you can be a great scientist without being good at math. The lowdown can be found at Dynamic Ecology (with 15 updates as of this writing!) I wrote my own take on it here.

Before we go any further, I’m curious about all of you, what’s your take on the op-ed piece? Compel yourself to make a choice. (If you have caveats, put them in the comments section of the post, but please pick one or the other).

One common reaction by scientists who teach and train students was, “Thanks, Ed, for making my job harder.” That was my first thought, as I regularly teach Biostatistics.

Another common reaction was, “That’s not the message to send students early on as they still are developing their skills in all aspects.”

With these ideas in mind, I brought the op-ed piece to a bunch of high school teachers. They read it and we discussed it for about half an hour.  How did the discussion go?

First, let me tell you more about the teachers. I regularly meet with this crowd as a part of an NSF-funded Noyce Master Teacher Fellow program that I run with education faculty. They all have their Master’s degree (most in education, some in science) and were competitively selected for this program as a result of their experience, excellence and continued commitment to teach in high-need urban schools in South Los Angeles. These teachers work in rough schools, with kids who have the deck stacked against them even before they enter the classroom. They were picked for this program because they are the ones staying at their schools even though most new teachers leave after a very short time.

These teachers are talented, dedicated, overworked, and mentors to new teachers. I tell them so often how much I respect and admire they work they’re probably sick of hearing it. (I have learned a lot from them about teaching over the past couple years, no surprise there.) One of the reasons I try to praise often is because they hear it so little elsewhere. The newspapers and the mayor and the school board and anybody who has a loud mouth will say that these teachers are the problem that need to be fixed. Let me tell you, that’s entirely backwards. These teachers are the solution to the problem. Free these teachers to do what they were professionally trained to do, with the resources to do it, and you’ll see the positive changes that have been so elusive. (Making this change, sadly, is politically complex).

These teachers know their stuff. Moreover, they teach exactly the population of students that NSF is trying to hard to recruit into the sciences: “underrepresented.”

The opinion of these teachers about the requisite math skills for becoming a scientist matters, more so than anybody else in the whole of the USA.

What did they say about Wilson’s piece? Immediately after we all read it, I did an informal survey: thumbs up or thumbs down, just like in this post. (Rest in peace, Roger Ebert.)

All I saw were thumbs up, or neutralish waves of whatever. I asked, why is that?

The general consensus was that being good at the process of science isn’t inherently mathematical. You don’t want to dissuade someone who is interested in science, after all. Of course, you need to use math, but that shouldn’t stop you from pursuing science and the math can come along for the ride. That was the initial response.

Then, one person (the only physics teacher in the bunch) disagreed, and a biology teacher joined in. They said that to be good at the practice of science, in real life, you have to be able to do math. You can’t really understand some fundamental principles in science unless you can grasp the math.  There were some disagreements, that this was endemic to physics, but then plenty of examples throughout the sciences were brought up. It was also raised that engineering is growing in importance and will be a key feature in new state educational standards soon to be adopted.

The discussion then turned to the fact that specific skill sets are required not just to be able to do science, but also to land positions, perform your job, and be able to adapt to evolving requirements of these jobs. Not all scientists can choose to work on whatever they want, even though E.O. Wilson has that option, and we need to train students to be prepared for the opportunities that rise before them and to be able to use their skills to create the opportunities that they want, or need.

If you’re E.O. Wilson, then you don’t need math, we decided. But if you’re not Wilson, with National Academy mathematicians available for collaboration, then sophisticated math is a very practical skill that will serve you well in the sciences more than almost any other resource. Especially if we are training students from disadvantaged backgrounds, we want to be able to confer upon our students every possible advantage, and being analytically and mathematically adept is key. It’s genuinely a key. It opens doors.

In the end, we agreed that Wilson was right on the fact: It’s possible to be a great scientist and not be great at math; this is a possibility.

We also agreed that this was a downright destructive choice to communicate such an idea.

Wilson’s article lamented that he had a hard time recruiting Harvard students to become scientists because of their math phobia. Nearly all of his students are archetypes of privilege, who also received strong preparation in high school before winding up at Harvard.

Meanwhile, the students in the classes of our master teachers who are lucky enough to graduate and then go to college, are likely to need remedial math. At my university, it’s been normal for a majority of entering students to require remedial math courses right off the bat because they don’t pass the stunningly basic placement exam. Do we want to tell them that math isn’t important to become a scientist? Should we tell them that this remedial math doesn’t matter, and that the calculus course required for our major is pointless?

Perhaps Wilson would like to visit us, and tell my students that they don’t need to worry too much about developing math talents to further their careers as scientists.

Far too often, my students have heard while growing up that they don’t need to work hard at something difficult. They have heard plenty enough that they should just slide into tasks suited to their inherent abilities, whatever they may be, rather than kick it up a notch and genuinely improve one’s talents. If you’re the first one in your family to go to college, expectations are paramount.

Maybe Wilson should limit his don’t-sweat-the-math message to his Harvard students. That way, our students will get jobs over their underprepared Ivy League competitors.

And then I woke up.

5 thoughts on “Science, math skills, and high school students

  1. You make a solid point Terry – and I appreciated that you included the discussion you had with these teachers. Their voices and their opinions not only matter, they’re the voices and opinions we should all be listening to. I still like Wilson’s op-ed piece, if for no other reason than I think a lot of students don’t realize that science can be natural, observational, and fun. I think once you inspire the intrigue / passion to ask questions and make discoveries, then you can make the case that math skills will greatly improve your ability to answer these questions and understand your discoveries. Learning math just because “it’s important” is a hard thing to sell to a student that doesn’t understand why they should care. Selling math to someone who realizes that science is an incredible career option, and with math skills they’ll increase their chances substantially to pursue that career, is a more feasible reality.

    • Well put. Even in my current situation (employed in a tenured position), I see limits to my advancement for want of more quantitative skills that I need to set the time aside to develop.

  2. I’m reading a bunch of your old posts and this one definitely popped out. I’ll write something about this sometime, but it’s beyond any doubt to me that the deciding factor of what has gotten to an Ivy league grad program in comp bio, having grown up in a really poor family and graduated from a rural Arizona HS, is math.

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