Public Perceptions of Mathematics

Prepared by:

Joseph Malkevitch
Department of Mathematics
York College (CUNY)
Jamaica, New York 11451


web page:

Improving the climate for mathematics and mathematics education in K-12 will require the work of many people. Few individuals will have the expertise to help out in all domains, so a division of labor is clearly necessary. My major personal interests are in curriculum, modeling and teaching using application contexts, geometry, and issues of public awareness concerning mathematics. The thoughts below, unfortunately, constitute little more than "sound bites." However, I hope they can be expanded through further discussion. a. "Recent" mathematics and its applications in the K-12 curriculum. Students who study world history and American history in our schools learn about World War I, World War II, the Great Depression, the agricultural and public health revolutions after World War II and myriad other important events of the last 100 years. It would seem silly to argue that there was quite enough history to study involving the years up to 1900 and, thus, we should not teach about any historical events of the last hundred years. In the last hundred years there has been amazing progress in the domains that mathematics investigates, not to mention the birth of computer science, many areas of which are highly mathematical. Some branches of mathematics (knot theory, game theory, convexity, etc.) barely existed prior to 1900. At least as dramatic has been the explosion of domains in which mathematics has found applicability. How many Americans are aware that if it were not for mathematics developed in the late 20th century, cell phone technology as we now know it would not exist? Although some of this explosion of mathematical knowledge and its applicability is much too arcane and complex to treat in K-12, there are many developments which should be introduced. I welcome discussions about how to bring this about. b. Public awareness of mathematics Mathematics has a serious "image problem." Not only is the general public unaware of the tremendous role that mathematics is playing in communications technology (fax, HDTV, the development of the World Wide Web, etc.), health (new drug development, CT and MRI scans, etc.), and dozens of other areas, but it also suffers from very limited views about who the practitioners of mathematics are and what the nature of mathematics is. Mathematics is definitely more than arithmetic and algebra, which the public all too often seems to fixate on. Part of the reason for this is that the broader themes (look at: of mathematics are rarely mentioned in K-12 at the expense of concentrating on techniques (e.g. solving linear and quadratic equations). One of the things I would like to do is to broaden the community of people interested in improving K-12 education in mathematics, and to make this community as fully aware as possible of resources for this effort. As a first step I am planning to have a section of the resources link for Math Is More devoted to issues about public awareness of mathematics and concerned with the public's perceptions of mathematics and mathematicians. If you know of books, articles, or web sites that deal with these issues that would be appropriate for listing please contact me at the email address below. I can not promise to use everything that is called to my attention but I hope to have something up in the not too distant future.