Ambassadors for Mathematics
Department of Mathematics
York College (CUNY)
Jamaica, New York 11451
Every high school graduate should be an ambassador for mathematics. What I mean by this is that students who plan to purse careers in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) disciplines, as well as other students, should realize the dramatic ways that mathematics affects their lives on a daily basis and should have had positive experiences learning mathematics. Students who believe that they cannot learn mathematics, that their ability to lead successful middle class lives could be diminished because of deficiencies in the mathematics they learned, or cannot see the point of the skills they acquired in mathematics classes, even when they are very successful on tests, may not become ambassadors for mathematics.
While we strive for conceptual learning of mathematical ideas, fluid technique, proficiency with and understanding of algorithms for as many students as we can, what do we do when students have difficulty mastering what we would like them to? We can insist that before we continue on they must master what they do not understand and learn the procedures they have trouble carrying out, or we can go on with what we want to accomplish and attempt to bring insight for what came before based on what they learn later. (At a higher level, many people do not understand the subtle concept of a limit the first time they see it. The concept of a limit is involved in the definition of a derivative of a function. Many people come to better and/or fully understand the limit concept after working with derivatives and learning how to compute them using "formulas" that do not require knowing what a limit means.) One way of making mathematics meaningful to students who do not cathect to its puzzle-solving appeal or the pleasure of its patterns is to make clear how important mathematics is in everyone's daily life.
Cell phones, CT scans, fax machines (to get the antibiotic for a child's ear infection to the pharmacist quickly), iPods, and a large number of other technologies that are parts of student every day life would not exist without mathematics developed in the 20th century. In many cases, the ideas behind these technologies can be meaningfully taught to students in K-12. Often these ideas support the teaching of "traditional" skills we teach in mathematics classrooms.
Not everyone who studies mathematics will pursue a STEM or information sciences career. However, with compassion towards those who struggle with mathematics, with improved pedagogical techniques and classroom practices, with teachers knowledgeable about the applications of mathematics and how to use this knowledge in their teaching, we can have our high school graduates be ambassadors for mathematics.