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Driving Innovation Through Math Education

The private sector needs to support and encourage an innovative math curriculum.

Another school year has passed, and many US student report cards reflect a fundamental problem in the classroom that could have serious future implications. When it comes to math skills, many of our students are unfortunately not making the grade.

Numerous studies show the depth of this deficiency:

  • The United States is ranked 25th in the world among countries in math standardization testing.
  • About 75 percent of our nation's students are not proficient in math when they enter high school.
  • Less than one-third of 2011 US high school graduates are proficient in math.
  • Even among students who gained college admission, one in four 2010 high school graduates currently enrolled in college report that they were required to take development or remedial courses.

These current low marks in math are troubling, and if this trend continues, it could potentially put the economic strength of our nation’s next generation at risk.

The jobs that will drive growth in the future lay squarely in the areas of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). The US Department of Labor projects that 15 of the 20 fastest growing occupations in 2014 will require science or mathematics knowledge to successfully compete for these jobs.

We are already in the midst of one of the most innovative eras in modern history. In the energy industry where I work, we are seeing scientific, technological, and engineering feats that allow us to discover, extract, and harness energy in ways never thought imaginable.

The United States has a long legacy of innovation in science and technology, but for our students to drive future innovation and help fuel a vibrant global economy, we must re-double our efforts on improving their core math skills. And securing the STEM jobs of the future will require building these skills at the earliest age possible.

I learned as a young boy the critical role math would play in securing my own future. Growing up in a family of migrant workers in the south during the 1950s, my father instilled in me the importance of numbers, especially when it came to tracking what you earned.

One experience in particular ingrained in me the value of math. When I was nine years old, a foreman, who suspected his pay was being shorted, asked me to calculate his earnings. After adding up the numbers and confirming his suspicions, I then witnessed him being punished severely for even attempting to bring up the issue with the farm owner.

This event made a dramatic impression on me and strengthened my resolve and passion in math, which led to a career path that includes a master’s degree in economics. Math taught me how to find the truth in numbers and attain the goals I had in my life; it was my key to mobility and success.

Even fifty years later, math remains a vital key to success both in professional and personal endeavors. In this era of tremendous innovation, new, compelling methods in teaching math are needed to address this crisis in the classroom. Math should be presented, not just as numbers and rules, but as a way to help today’s students build critical-thinking, problem-solving skills in an engaging and appealing manner.

One program taking an innovative teaching approach is the California State University, East Bay Mathematics Achievement Academies (MAA), a four-week summer program throughout Alameda and Contra Costa Counties.

The program, launched in 2009 by Chevron, teaches more than 1,000 middle school students, who earned low grades in math, creative and different ways to solve math problems. With the help of trained teachers, college mentors, and Chevron volunteers, the MAA focuses more on concrete and semi-concrete learning and critical thinking instead of rote memorization to help students build their confidence and content knowledge in math.

This unique approach is clearly resonating in the classroom. In 2011, for example, 125 participants learning geometry averaged a 51.4 percent increase in geometry tests after the summer session. In the local West Contra Costa Unified School District alone, 82 percent of the participants who received low to failing marks in beginning algebra in eighth grade earned a grade of A or a B in high school the next year.

While the scale of this math academy is still local and under evaluation for expansion to other regions, similar programs with innovative math curriculum should be supported and encouraged by the private sector to strengthen our talent pool and help meet the global demand for STEM related jobs.

With 57,000 employees, Chevron relies on the world’s smartest talent to help meet the challenge of providing abundant, affordable energy to the world. To be well equipped for what lies ahead, we must invest now in our students to ensure that scientists, geologists, and engineers from the US are part of a diverse workforce that drives the growth of the world’s economy for generations to come.

For this to happen, we must act now. We do not have time to wait.

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COMMENTS

  • Shahid Ali's avatar

    BY Shahid Ali

    ON August 23, 2012 11:09 PM

    Although the Article is highlighting US scenario but its great to read that. I am 28 yeas old from Pakistan and just started building my math skills but I am not clear how it leads innovation to individuals???

  • to Shahid Ali…
    A layman’s response… based on my experience, I would suggest that your answer is in the area of critical thinking.  An innovative idea has to have “wheels put on it” before its value is realized.  Math - very much like music and art - provides the discipline to achieve what you have imagined.  Without the basic tools and clarity that understanding real number theory provides, the solutions are less obvious.  Just a thought!

  • Bonnie's avatar

    BY Bonnie

    ON June 5, 2013 01:46 PM

    Math teaches problem-solving skills.  Innovation occurs because problems need to be solved.

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