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Math and Success: Skills for Today’s Job Market

Math Mark
Math Mark (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Visalia Direct: Virtual Valley
December 5, 2014 Deadline
January 2015 Issue

In 2013, California began phasing out the algebra requirement for eighth grade students. Math and science requirements have been reduced in Texas and several other states that followed California’s lead. This is the wrong path, especially for Central Valley schools that have extreme achievement gaps among socioeconomic groups.

In 2013, some social advocates argued that the algebra and science graduation requirements disproportionately penalized poor and minority students. Instead of reducing our standards for middle and high school completion, our schools should have developed better math and science education in our elementary schools. I fear the choices made a year ago will lead to more economic isolation for the Central Valley and similar regions.

Cutting math requirements might make graduation easier, but it also limits the future opportunities for our young people.

Math is the key to success in our modern economy. Solving the problems of the world involves technical skills. From bioinformatics within the health care system to spatial-temporal uncertainty analysis used within climatology, companies and governments need mathematically skilled, logical problem solvers. The worn cliché that math is everywhere, from art to music, is true and it explains why computer programming skills are used everywhere, too.

Degrees in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields provide the skills needed for financial success or policy influence in our changing economy. However, not everyone wants to be an engineer or physicist.

Carnegie Mellon University, where I teach, has discovered that STEM skills are what matter to many employers, regardless of the degrees students complete. Frequent career fairs allow the university to determine what skills recruiters seek. Every few years, course requirements are updated to reflect hiring trends.

CMU now requires all undergraduate students to take programming and statistics courses, alongside traditional writing, language, history and arts requirements. This expansion of general education reflects the career world our graduates must navigate. CMU is ranked number one nationally in computer science, but we’re also number one for theater arts, and those theater students take math and technology courses.

Students do complain about being asked to learn computer programming and statistical analysis. The complaints end when they start receiving paid internships and job offers. Before Christmas break, all the seniors in my courses had job offers. Most of the juniors had paid internship offers. As they hear from friends, and often their siblings, struggling in the job market, the CMU philosophy becomes something to celebrate.

A May 2014 study by professor Jonathan Wai of Duke University found that among the world’s elite, degrees in STEM fields separated the highest earners and most influential people from others. As Wai noted, influence doesn’t always correlate with being a billionaire, either. His study “Investigating the World’s Rich and Powerful” found that slightly more than 40 percent of elites in the world had majored in “engineering or STEM” fields. Wai classified “elites” by examining wealth, major media mentions, academic citations and political leadership, among other variables.

If we don’t improve the effectiveness of math and science instruction, the gap between the elites and everyone else will continue to widen. Those able to understand, program and manipulate complex equations increasingly control global markets. Those with political and economic power increasingly turn to STEM experts as their advisers.

Most elites without degrees, including some famous wealthy college dropouts like Bill Gates, for whom a building is named at CMU, came from technology fields. The value of computer programming is something I’ve written about several times. I have, however, neglected the value of statistics and the software tools used to analyze data.

Algorithms, complex mathematical formulas, shape everything around us. The same math used to study particle movement is used in computational finance. The math used to set sports book odds is used to gerrymander congressional districts. Nate Silver gained prominence improving sabermetrics, the statistical analysis of baseball teams, before projecting political races. While Silver studies and projects elections, other mathematicians working for political parties try to improve their parties’ odds.

Statistics, rhetoric and logic are required by CMU because professional success and civic engagement benefit from the ability to discern accurate information from misleading logical fallacies. For example, our students need to know that averages are often skewed by outliers. When you know to distrust news reports citing averages, you develop a healthy skepticism that leads to deeper questions.

The requirements Carnegie Mellon has added to its general education program benefit all students. Young people cannot predict what paths their professional lives might take.

Although many of my students enter with plans for careers in finance and technology, I remind them that the math and programming skills we prize at CMU are used in many other important pursuits. By their junior and senior years, the students have discovered that their skills are valuable to industries as diverse as alternative energy and music production. Companies recruit our graduates not based on what the students have memorized, but based their demonstrated abilities to adapt skills to new problems.

The CMU approach could be replicated within California’s state colleges and universities. Adding programming and statistics to general education would give our students a career advantage and, more importantly, a life advantage.

I realize not everyone shares my love for computers, math and science. Many of my students don’t share my passions, but they come to appreciate the knowledge they gain and the critical thinking skills developed in technical requirements. More importantly, the students appreciate the great job opportunities they have earned by graduation. Hopefully, they appreciate these courses and the required art and history classes.

If we could convince state leaders to allow California State University campuses in Fresno and Bakersfield to experiment with a new, alternative general education sequence, employers might respond by recruiting those highly skilled graduates. My dream is that an STEM-based general education option for undergraduates would also influence our high schools.

Employers concentrate in areas with skilled workforces, creating a cycle of success. The Bay Area is an example of universities attracting employers, which help nurture those universities and local schools. Reducing expectations has the opposite effect on a local economy. Is that really what we want for the Central Valley?


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