Drawing some math conclusions

For a subject associated with nerds and bad hairdos, math attracts its share of attention. Indeed, last week, interest in the oft-maligned discipline covered ground from the Pacific to the Atlantic.

On the eastern side of this span, a study out of England's Plymouth University started a buzz with its revelations of how children perceive mathematicians. In all likelihood, this is because the students, who hailed from five countries (and not just ones where kids score poorly on international math tests), drew images that reveal what many adults think: that math is mysterious and appeals only to people who are ... different. Who like solitude. Who look like Einstein. Who know the answer to everything. Who are dauntingly single-minded.

Those perceptions may shed light on a proposal put forth on the western side of this equation. California Gov. Gray Davis's administration estimates the state will need almost 1,300 more algebra teachers over the next three years, as schools boost instruction of the subject. Governor Davis is eyeing financial incentives for schools to expand algebra classes and attract new teachers.

It may be a tough search, given that a lot of onetime candidates likely opted out of being labeled a nerd, not to mention that many who stuck with math want a better salary than teaching offers. According to Susan Picker, who did much of the British study's research and is a staff developer in New York City schools, few children have any idea of the possibilities open to mathematicians. So along with any budgets for greater math instruction should come that most ubiquitous of American activities: a PR campaign. Maybe then, in the future, it'll all add up.

E-mail newcomba@csps.com.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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