Boston University professor Bob Devaney is in Minnesota this week, as part of the Minnesota Math Mobilization program. He is usually in Boston doing research in Complex Dynamics, but for his spring break, he has chosen to travel around the state giving talks to audiences of high school math teachers as well as some college students. I had a chance to talk to him this morning immediately before he left for Duluth.
Professor Devaney is concerned about the lack of communication between high school math teachers and college math teachers and researchers. "It's ridiculous to have two groups of mathematicians so divided; for the most part, they do not talk to one another. Most mathematicians at the college level don't even know what NCTM stands for. And yet high school teachers are the ones responsible for getting students interested in mathematics."
What exactly is turning students away from math?
"Our society currently views it as acceptable to dislike math. High school students decide math is boring so they're going to stop taking it; their parents don't object. They say, 'I got by with only eighth grade math, so my kids will be able to do the same.'
"Most high school teachers are afraid of changing the curiculum to incorporate technology and modern mathematics. The lack of communication with researchers makes it very difficult for them.
"These attitudes are part of why our country is in the state it's in today. We need to make an effort to get students interested again. I think it's time for mathematicians to do what everyone else has been doing for a long time; namely, popularize and advertize."
How can we popularize mathematics?
Professor Devaney has been active in a program affiliated with Boston University which works with Boston inner city schools: "The purpose of the program was twofold; first, we wanted to help the teachers learn to use the technology effectively. The schools all had computers, but we had to find a way to incorporate them into the curiculum.
"The second goal of the program was to add modern mathematics into the courses. The teachers really resisted this, so in order to convivce them, we formed an after school Chaos Club. Once a week we would have some activity, usually on the computer. It was always something fun but also always having to do with math. The club was very popular with students. The teachers were amazed at all these students staying after school to do math. It was quite persuasive of the importance of this kind of material. Now the teachers have taken over the club."
For the specific material that Professor Devaney feels is appropriate for high school students, as well as a desription of the talks he is giving in Minnesota this week, please see the part two of this article.