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BY THOMAS K. GROSE

CONFRONTING MATH APATHY

An esteemed British engineer campaigns for better teaching.


UP CLOSE image: Julia Higgins with quote: We don't all need to be taught like potential math-ematicians.A recent government report found that many 14-to-19-year-old students in the United Kingdom don't even expect to understand math. That's the kind of news that alarms and exasperates Professor Dame Julia Higgins. "In this country, it's perfectly OK to say, 'I can't do maths,'" she says, "but it's not OK to say, 'I can't read.'"

Her gripe about numbers-phobic students will no doubt resonate with educators and business leaders on both sides of the Atlantic. But as chair of the Advisory Committee on Mathematics Education (ACME), which lobbies the British government to raise teaching standards and promote mathematics at all levels, Higgins can do more than complain. She is giving the problems, and proposed solutions, greater prominence.

Traditionally, ACME's chairs are not mathematicians, but professionals who have put math to good use in their careers. Higgins, 67, qualifies on that front, having led the Faculty of Engineering at Imperial College London, Britain's top technical school, where she is now professor emeritus. Known for trying to raise the visibility of women in science and engineering, Higgins is also a member and past vice president of the Royal Society, Britain's national academy of science. With her "public profile and station," Higgins adds weight to ACME, says Nick Bowes, head of ACME's secretariat. "She opens doors, and people sit up and listen to her."

The issues that preoccupy Higgins are sadly familiar: poorly taught math classes, unqualified teachers, unacceptable math scores, and apparent public indifference to the dire societal and economic consequences of a generation of students who are hapless at math. In today's technology-driven world, a workforce literate in math is essential to having a strong, growing economy, Higgins argues: "Mathematics is important because it enables so many different careers."

High school math places too much emphasis on theory, she says. "We don't all need to be taught like potential mathematicians." Most students need only learn "appropriate mathematics," which stresses the uses of math in everyday life.

In elementary school, too many teachers "are not mathematically inclined" and lack the confidence to teach the subject well, Higgins notes. ACME recommends that each school have a math specialist on staff who can advise uncertain teachers. Higgins has also taken aim at the series of national tests British students face at various levels. She says the testing leads to too many schools - which are rated according to the results - drilling kids day after day, week after week, to answer a narrow range of questions. "Then you expect kids to find math fun after being taught that way?"

Higgins is a proponent of using easily understood examples to help students grasp math's fundamentals. Her sister, Frances, was a talented math teacher at a boys' school who regularly employed hands-on activities to make the complex clear. For example, to get her 16-year-olds to understand acceleration, she had them rolling balls down the hallway. It worked, too. "One boy said to her, 'Why didn't anyone ever show us this before?'" Higgins points out. "She put math in context - there's not enough of that."

During Higgins's more than 20 years at Imperial, she enjoyed a stellar research career. Her specialty was using neutron scattering techniques to investigate the behavior of complex materials, particularly polymers. She also spent four years heading Britain's Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council and was the initial chair of the Athena Project, a 10-year program to help the advancement of women in science, engineering, and technology in higher education. She acquired the title "Dame," the female equivalent of a knighthood, in 2001.

The challenge of trying to shape government policy is "a slow, sometimes frustrating process," Higgins says, but she's optimistic that ACME's message is getting across. It doesn't take much math to measure the risks of ignoring it.

Thomas K. Grose is Prism's chief correspondent, based in the United Kingdom.

 

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