The word is out -- girls need to learn more math

"Mathematics improves your ability to look thoughtfully at a problem in any field," says Ms. Lorelei Brush, author of "Encouraging Girls in Mathematics" (Cambridge, Mass. Abt Books, 1980). "And feeling competent in mathematics is virtually a prerequisite for many good jobs today."

It is important, Brush emphasizes, that students of both sexes take as many math courses in junior and senior high school as possible so as not to limit their choice of careers before they have even begun college.

Brush points out that "the same things that turn girls off from mathematics also discourage boys."

But boys tend to persevere in mathematics even if they do not especially enjoy it, realizing that it may well prove useful later in their lives. Typical of a boy's attitude, says Brush, is "I don't know what my career will be, but I want to keep my options open."

A girl, however is much more likely to say, "I don't know what my career will be, but I won't need math." The choice not to study mathematics not only limits a young person's initial choice of career, but it also limits mid-career changes , which are becoming increasingly common.

Because mathematics is such an important part of modern life, Brush urges parents to counter this old and outdated argument and to encourage both boys and girls to take as many mathematics courses as possible.

But children also need to be able to see how numbers pertain to daily life. "The ability to see how mathematics applies to a practical issue is at least as important as being able to solve the resulting mathematical problem," says Brush. She also points out that "'word problems' are always very unpopular with students, but word problems are the only kind we ever have in daily life."

She gives some practical suggestions for parents -- some of the ways they can encourage children to fell "at home" with numbers.

* Number games.

During car or bus rides, even very young children can play games involving "counting" numbers on license plates. The numbers must be found, in order, on different cars, going from 1 to 10 and even on up to 31 and 32, and so on.

Board games also often make use of numbers. Older children can try to figure out the probabilities of rolling a certain number using dice.

Even traditional street games, such as jump rope, hopscotch, and "Captain, May I," make use of numbers.

There are also coloring books available with numbers games for younger children.

* Managing money.

Although it's probably not practical for children to get too involved in family finances, there's no reason a child can't be taught the numbers involved in his or her own money. Counting the pennies in a piggybank, and figuring out how they translate into nickels or dimes, is something a very young child could do.

An older child might learn to use paper coin rolls from a bank and count out coins to be turned in for larger denominations.

An older child can also learn about percentages from watching interest accumulate in even a very small savings account.

And balancing a checkbook, says Brush, who has had her own checking account since the age of 12, is a very good way for young people to get practical experience with numbers.

* Planning a trip.

Children can learn to read maps, compute mileage, and help determine the shortest route for trip. A more complicated family project might involve estimating gas mileage and necessary purchases of gas.

* Cooking.

Doubling and halving recipes offer obvious ways to use mathematics in cooking. Calculating the number of servings a quiche or pie will yield, and deciding how to cut it into perfectly pie-shaped wedges, is a challenge an adult might enjoy sharing with a child.

* Determining Velocity.

An airplane trip taken by a child or a friend or relative provides a good opportunity to talk about velocity and determine rates of speed.

* SEwing or carpentry.

Designing or altering patterns involves numbers and patience, both useful skills in mathematics. Even for a parent who does not sew or work well with wood, events such as Christmas, Halloween, and Valentine's Day provide ample opportunity for measuring and designing.

* Reading newspapers and magazines.

Mathematics involves the sophisticated use of a vocabulary just as reading does. Statistics published in newspapers and magazines provide a good opportunity to discuss with children how numbers can "lie." Or how they can be used to illuminate a point.

Learning to approach numbers critically will help children see that numbers can be manipulated to obscure facts as well as to illuminate them. Show your child how misleading a statistic such as "25 percent of the group" is when the group consists of three people.

* Redecorating.

If you're going to be painting or wallpapering a room, have your child help figure out how much paint you will need, or how much extra wallpaper for matching the pattern. Tiling a floor or installing insulation also involve mathematical estimates children might enj oy.

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