Cognitive Dissonance

I have been hearing that the US is behind the world in math and science for years now, but today I read in the Washington Post that the demand for multivariable calculus in high school is growing.

More than 500 students in the Montgomery and Fairfax school systems, the region’s two largest, are taking multivariable calculus, a course traditionally taken by math majors in their second year of college — at least in the old days. That means the students have a full year of college-level calculus under their belt before they leave high school.

The drive seems to related to two effects. One is pushing algebra down into the seventh and eighth grades. This puts students on a track to finish AP calculus in their junior year. A good student who will take a technical major in college is well advised to not take off a full year from math, so what should they take? The other effect is the competition for college admissions. If so many people are taking calculus how can the best students stand out?

I do worry where they will find the instructors for these classes. If the teacher is not up to the task, the students might waste a year or get turned off.

When the school tapped Moriarty to teach the new course last year, he had to search his basement to find notes he took on multivariable calculus as a sophomore in college almost 30 years ago.

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2 Responses to “Cognitive Dissonance”

  1. Interesting. I took multivariable calculus at a local community college in my junior year of high school, but it wasn’t that theoretically rigorous. It’s good for the kids to be taking something, but hopefully it doesn’t get too watered down and give a weak idea of what math is really about. But it should still be good for anyone who wants to become an engineer.

    I didn’t take any math at all my senior year, and it didn’t kill me. Actually, it was great to take other classes that were more culturally enriching and experience life off of the math/science track for a bit. I wonder a bit if there isn’t going to be a massive generational mid-life crisis in about thirty years with all of the kids who are brought up on the notion of math and science uber alles when it might not be what the kid is actually interested in. (Yes, it’s probably fair to say that I’m projecting a little. I may just be put together a bit differently, too.) I still believe that everyone who is able ought to take calculus and calculus-based physics–it really hones analytical thinking skills. And I seem to remember that Russian kids would routinely take calculus at 15 or 16 back in the Soviet days, so there’s no reason why American kids should be any less capable.

    The bright kids will find their way. Maybe this will lead to more American kids going into technical fields, though I’d steer young people to engineering and not physics. A couple of more friends of mine from graduate school will probably be leaving because them’s the breaks–all overeducated and no place to go without starting over. I have a mind to rant in my blog about how I’m sick of hearing columnists and politicians who don’t know an integral from an integer complaining about how we need more Americans going into math and science, except for the fact that it’s not as simple as that. Doing physics is like trying out for major league athletics, as you wrote in your very first comment on my blog, and a lot of very bright people have to find something else to do after a few years. Maybe our high schools really should be offering courses on statistics and scientific assertiveness rather than multivariable calculus….

  2. Mark Berch Says:

    The Post had a good story by Daniel de Vise on students taking a second year of calculus multivariable calculus course. However, apparently the writer was not aware that some students take calculus even beyond that. Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring offers a fifth semester of calculus for students who took multivariable calculus in their junior year or earlier. When my younger son took this course in Fall 2004, there were actually enough students for two sections of this.

    Kristin wrote, “Maybe our high schools really should be offering courses on statistics and scientific assertiveness rather than multivariable calculus” Schools that offer Calculus II always offer statistics, usually AP statistics.

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