Readers Respond: Does Fixing the Leaky STEM Pipeline Require Calculus to...


Readers Respond: Does Fixing the Leaky STEM Pipeline Require Calculus to Adapt?

By Daniel Mollenkamp     Oct 3, 2023

Readers Respond: Does Fixing the Leaky STEM Pipeline Require Calculus to Adapt?

This article is part of the guide: Recalculating Math Instruction.

The need to strengthen the science, technology, math and engineering (STEM) careers pipeline has received renewed interest lately.

Whether students can successfully flow through the pipeline to fill vital jobs in the country may have significance for the national interest, according to some observers.

So what would it take to make STEM truly open to would-be future scientists? A number of instructors say it’s partly reconsidering how calculus, a crucial step toward STEM careers and often a “weed out” course in higher ed, is taught.

With educators duking it out in the so-called “math wars” over the curriculum changes in California — which recommended delaying algebra, a critical juncture in the race to calculus in K-12 — the question rose to the fore this year. Noticing this, EdSurge traveled to Harvard this summer to observe one attempt at a more subtle revolution, meant to bring calculus instruction into the 21st century. The resultant piece — published in EdSurge and USA Today — struck a chord. And readers had a lot to say, both in favor and against the thesis.

Here are some of the more thoughtful responses.

Another Language

A reader from Utah: “For me the breakthrough was finding out math is just another language with its own grammar and syntax. It is a language that is very eloquent at describing what we see in the natural world, and like all languages conveys meaning and understanding. Memorizing formulas and equations is about as useful as memorizing poems as way of learning to write in English. Teach it as a language used to describe things and as a tool for real life problem solving.”

A teacher from Pennsylvania: “Been teaching calculus to HS seniors for 30 years. The issue is algebra skills. Those with strong algebra skills will excel at calculus. The weak algebra students weed themselves out. After all, if you understand what calculus is all about, you will realize that calculus is just algebra 1 ‘on steroids.’”

A parent from Iowa: “As it happens my daughter is a freshman in ME taking Calc 2 this semester and I was helping her study for her first big exam last night. While the content of the course has changed almost completely since I took it 40 years ago, in my opinion it is still way too based on memorizing dozens of formulas for the exams. No professional works that way. If you don’t happen to remember some formula or integral or whatever, (probably because you do it a lot), you just look it up and continue. Knowing *what* to do for a problem is a million times more important than having memorized some trivia about it along the way. IMO, this memorization-heavy approach is why so many of my fellow students flushed out of Engineering and why I never really understood it until my EE ‘waves and fields’ class let me see the ‘what and the why.’”

A reader from Illinois: “One of my favorite things about learning calculus the last year and half was the application to the real world. If anything, vectors and multi variable calculus should be taught sooner instead of last or not at all as it has the most applicability to the real world.”

The ‘Fail Out Course’

An educator from California: “This misses the bigger picture that the reason maths instruction like algebra keeps getting pushed to younger grades is because folks are trying to get the edge in getting into highly competitive universities. Get rid of the societal lies that everyone needs to go to college and everyone must strive to go to an Ivy League school rather than one that is their best fit. You will see more success all around.”

A reader from Minnesota: “A long time ago I was told my algebra was weak. I got As in middle school but soon as high school the teaching got muddled. Never got to master what I learned just basics but never felt confident in any math class from that point on. Can math be taught [or] is it just a gift. My college professor while he was teaching us announced to the class that math can’t be taught. So gave up on ever getting it. Great huh.”

A teacher from Kansas: “In college, calculus was a requirement for the business school. It was the fail out course. In MBA school it was only used in an economics course. That was it. In undergrad, when I switched out of music, I picked a new major by looking for something that I was interested in studying and didn't require calculus or organic chemistry. That was geography.”

A professor from Indiana: “I've taught calculus dozens of times, with diverse textbooks, quite successfully. Some texts overflow with fake ‘applications,’ but these hide the mathematical essence under a mountain of details. Students learn better from a straightforward treatment of the mathematical essence.”

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