
Bring math back to Earth
Posted:
Apr 23, 1999 1:50 PM


As a teacher of science (experienced in teaching in high schools and colleges) I find my students woefully underequipped to do any useful math. Somehow, the useful concepts and skills got pushed aside to teach more advanced topics such as set theory, number theory, etc. In the meantime, the students never got a chance to learn how to count their toes.
High school algebra teachers seem to have abrogated their responsibility to teach logarithms. Some have told me that "nobody uses them anymore since we don't need logs to multiply big numbers; calculators do that" and "if a kid needs the log of a number, there's a button for that on the calculator". Textbooks may have chapters on logs but the teachers treat that chapter as optional (i.e., not to be taught unless you're out of material and it's not June).
The upshot is that chemistry teachers must then teach logs to their students so that they understand pH. And if they get that far the physics teacher may need to go over logs again so that students understand other logarithmic topics such as the decibel scale. Or, in Astronomy, the magnitude scale for stars, etc. Those are but three of the many topics that scientists use logs for. Start adding in the slightly harder topics such as reaction kinetics, radioactive decay, blackbody radiation, power addition of signals, etc. and the students don't stand a chance unless the science teacher teaches them the math first.
Another grossly deficient area of teaching is in measurements and the use of units for quantities, but I'll save that for another posting.
Perhaps the problem is that math teachers are undereducated in the sciences. Would it be fair to say that science teachers' knowledge of math exceeds math teachers' knowledge of science  especially the physical sciences? I submit that no teacher should be certified to teach math in high school unless that teacher has successfully completed one year of college chemistry and one year of college (algebrabased would be fine!) physics.
Nowhere in the vague, touchyfeely standards do I see any relief in sight.

