The Irascible Professor SM
Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro

"I know that two and two make four -- & should be glad to prove it too if I could -- though I must say if by any sort of process I could convert 2 & 2 into five it would give me much greater pleasure."...  ... Lord Byron.

Commentary of the Day - April 14, 2005: I Don't DO Math.  Guest commentary by Jay C. Odaffer.

It happened again.  This happens every semester.  It's become a sort of sick game for me, trying to guess which of my students it will be.  Sometimes after the first test, most likely after the mid-term, at least one student will walk into my office to find out why he or she did so poorly on the exam for one of my science classes and inevitably declare, "Well, I skipped THOSE questions because I don't DO math."

Now we are not talking about any sort of advanced math.  This is, after all, a community college and these are mostly Liberal Arts and Education majors.  My classes, Oceanography, Earth Science and Environmental Science, are primarily taken by students to satisfy their "breadth" requirements for graduation.  Occasionally, I'll find a student who is really interested in science, or occasionally I can lure one into switching his or her major, but for the most part, I get my professional satisfaction from teaching students to think critically about the kinds of science topics that they will encounter as average functioning adults in our society.

There's no way around it.  That task is going to include some math.

Since algebra is required for graduation from high school in the state of Florida, you would think I would be safe using a few basic equations.  For example, water is a serious issue here.  In some cities, you actually can be fined for watering your lawn on the wrong day, or for watering for so long that it begins to run into the street.  So we spend some time talking about aquifers.

I tell them, "Water moves about 10 feet per year underground.  Our aquifer is recharged by rain in the swamps in Georgia, about 250 miles north of here.  How long will it take rain that falls today up north in Georgia to replenish the drinking water aquifer down here in Florida?"

Nobody moves.  This is the science class equivalent of the old "How long does it take the train moving at X miles per hour to travel a distance of Y miles?" question that I remember first tackling in the eighth grade.  These students have vague memories of seeing something like this before, but they have no idea what to do, so I begin drawing and scratching on the board.  About half way through my explanation of the problem it becomes apparent that only one or two of them are actually writing anything down.
I pull out the big guns.  "This is going to be on the test."

At that point I've got the attention of about half of them, who begin dutifully copying what I have written so far.  The rest of them just sit there, with a slightly glazed-over look in their eyes.  They've already made their decision.

I don't DO math.

How did it come to this?  These are all adults who are trying to climb their way into the 28 percent of Americans who will double their lifetime earnings by completing a college degree.  At the beginning of every new semester I give a little spiel about how a functional grasp of basic mathematics is required for any college level discussion of science and will therefore constitute ten percent of all test questions.  I try to reassure them that I will require no more math proficiency than will be generally expected of them in the wider world as members of the educated class.

Does society allow a person with a college degree to say, "I'm sorry, I don't DO punctuation?"  Or "I know it's difficult to read the memo, but you know me!  I just don't DO complete sentences!"  What has given these students the idea that basic math has become optional?

I have my guess.

A few days ago, one of my Environmental Science students came to see me about her grade.  I was multi-tasking in the office, as usual during my office hours before and after an exam.  Several students were clamoring with questions and personal emergencies.  I told her the maximum number of points possible so far and then told her the points that she had earned on each of the half dozen assignments.  I reminded her that a score of ninety percent was an A, eighty percent was a B and so forth.  I had her sit at an empty desk and turned to help the next person in line.

When everyone else was done, she was still there, waiting politely.

"Um. I didn't bring my calculator.  Could you add these for me?"

I knew what was coming, but I couldn't help myself.  I handed her a pencil.

"What's this for?"

"To add with."

She then launched into a sublimely self-confident explanation about why she does not DO math.  She wasn't ashamed or apologetic.  In fact her tone suggested that she believed that I was the one who was being unreasonable.  She informed me that she is getting A's in all of her major course work so my expectations are clearly above and beyond what I should be requiring of "non-science" majors.  The thrust of her argument seemed to be that calculators and spreadsheets make arithmetic unnecessary and that she will have no use for anything more advanced in her chosen career.

She is going to be a teacher.

©2005 Jay C. Odaffer.
Jay Odaffer is an adjunct professor in the Natural Science Department at Manatee Community College in Florida.

The IP comments: I certainly sympathize with Jay.  In some of my introductory lab classes, which actually are for science majors, I regularly meet students who think that 1/2 + 1/3 = 1/5.

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© 2005 Dr. Mark H. Shapiro - All rights reserved.