We can’t afford to discount math
As a society, we don’t have alarm bells going off that many people can’t do math beyond a Grade 6 level, says professor Arvind Gupta. Yet, math is increasingly a part of everyday life.
May 07, 2009 04:03 PM EDT
Dr. Arvind Gupta is a computing science professor at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver and the scientific director of MITACS, a Vancouver-based research centre working to make mathematical research a greater focus for Canadian corporations. MITACS (Mathematics of Information Technology and Complex Systems) works with the government and companies toward finding solutions for climate change, information security, and building a stronger Canadian economy. On a recent visit to Toronto, Dr. Gupta spoke with GlobeCampus.ca about why it’s important to engage students in math, and how stronger math skills will help Canada prosper in the future.
Katherine Laidlaw, GlobeCampus.ca: To start off, maybe you could tell me a little about what you do.
Dr. Arvind Gupta: Essentially [MITACS is] addressing the issue that Canada wants to build a knowledge economy yet we don’t generate much mathematics outside of our universities, in particular in our industrial sector. Countries that are knowledge economies generate a huge amount of mathematics so if you go into California, Silicon Valley, Boston, but also Korea, Japan, Germany, they’re doing lots of mathematical research in their companies. This is a real problem for Canada if we don’t do that. So we’re looking at ways to address that issue.
GlobeCampus.ca: Why do you think math makes so many people nervous?
Dr. Gupta: I always thought that math, in many ways, was easier than doing social sciences. In social sciences, you have to be very creative. In math, at least up to high school, you can follow directions. It’s a recipe, right? I think what happens in math is, if you miss a concept – let’s say in Grade 5 or 6 you didn’t quite get fractions – these kids go from Grade 5 having understood the whole thing, to suddenly being in Grade 9 algebra and not having a clue what the teacher’s talking about because they missed some simple thing. If you miss some basic simple things that are foundational, it’s a snowball effect. Often when kids are diagnosed with this math phobia, it’s because they missed some concepts.
GlobeCampus.ca: Is it important for children to be interested in math?
Dr. Gupta: Actually, children are very interested in math. Surveys show that Grade 3 kids, about 85 per cent of them identified math as something they really like and enjoy doing. At an early age, kids show natural affinity and interest in mathematics. Somewhere along the line we start losing these kids. And I think that’s the real question. How to keep kids interested in math, how to make sure we give them the support they need, to find mechanisms to give them that support, to help parents support their children’s learning outcomes.
GlobeCampus.ca: Where do you think we as a society went awry when it came to building mathematical skills?
Dr. Gupta: I’m not sure that we as a society ever put a lot of emphasis on mathematical skills. What I find interesting is that, if most people couldn’t read beyond a Grade 6 level, we’d be really concerned about it. We’d be saying, ‘We’ve got an illiterate society.’ We have this major push for literacy. And yet we have a society where a lot of people don’t really go beyond Grade 6 math. Or their comprehension isn’t much better than Grade 6 math. We’re quite blasé about it. And I think we as a country just have to make it a priority.
GlobeCampus.ca: Do you have any proposed solutions or examples of what parents or teachers could do in the home or the classroom to get children engaged?
Dr. Gupta: Well, that’s a big challenge. At least at a young age, we can play a lot of games with kids, for the parents to sit down with their kids and play cards, play board games, get their kids to see, are they making smart decisions when they play Monopoly.
As kids get older, it’s true that there comes a point that parents are going to find their kids are doing math that they don’t know. My suggestion would be that parents do the math with their kids, while the kids are doing it. If you as a parent do not feel comfortable in math, what a great opportunity when your kid is learning it to learn with them. We find that kids start dropping off at the same point their parents stop understanding what’s being done. So if parents are pretty good at multiplication and addition and basic geometry shapes, they can teach their kids. And parents want to help their kids learn. It’s just when they start themselves not being able to do it when they run into trouble.
And with the teachers, it’s a challenge for them when you’ve got curriculums that are changing, and you could be a teacher who went through an arts program and now you’ve come back and have to teach Grade 7 math, and are not given the proper resources and tools to do it. I think as a society we need to debate this. … The way [MITACS is] thinking about it is, what do kids like to do already? And can we embed math into that?
GlobeCampus.ca: Do you think it’s even more important now, given the economic climate, that people start talking about this?
Dr. Gupta: I think it’s a good opportunity to talk about this issue. Individuals need to understand basic finances. We all want to retire one day and have enough money. We all want to understand what financial instruments to buy at the bank. In Canada, the lowest interest rate is .25 per cent. Well, we’re not going to make much on our savings accounts. So we need to figure out: Do we buy instruments that guarantee us 25-per-cent return with a certain format, or should we buy some other instrument? Should we hire experts all the time to make these decisions for us, who may be biased in their own way? People have to have some basic literacy in these numeracy skills. I think the financial crisis is a time when there’s a very clear example of something that impacts all of us where understanding mathematics would help.
Cars, roads, traffic, all these things use math. From the time you wake up in the morning until the time you go to bed, there’s been so much math in everything you’ve done. You go onto the Internet to do your banking, well all that communication is done through lots of math. You get on your cell phone, there’s lots of math going on. So, you know, it’s all around us and getting more and more pervasive. We should have some idea that this is the world we live in.