By Irene Aldridge
A question for you: if you have 9 dots lined up in a 3×3 grid (Figure 1), how do you connect them all with just four segments without lifting your pen? This is an example of an out-of-the-box problem which kids love and which expands their sense of spatial coordinates and problem solving not usually taught at school. The Math & Science curriculum in early childhood education is focussed on understanding numbers — a great feat and a standard-meeting requirement. While mastering basic arithmetic is necessary, what makes you more interested in learning math & science: 1) reciting arithmetic or 2) fun advanced brain teasers in a collegial atmosphere? (You can find the answer to the dot-connecting problem at the end of this article.)
A recent Georgetown study found that memorable and engaging educational experiences outside of school at an early age is a strong predictor of success in middle school and beyond. To put it simply, fun advanced Math & Science, in addition to the formal graded schooling process, expands the brain. Even children enrolled in the most well-respected of schools benefit from activities that go beyond standard curriculum and that are really fun. In addition, hands-on projects address the need for immediate gratification to see science work and to create long-lasting practical connections with real-life applications.
Perhaps the main issue with the U.S. elementary and secondary education in Math today, though seldom discussed, is a disconnect between the early school curriculum and that of the university Math, Science, and Engineering programs. A 2010 research study by John H. Bishop from Cornell University shows that:
“In the final year of secondary school American students lag even further behind. In mathematics U.S. high school seniors were 99 points behind the Dutch, 91 points behind Swedes, 62 points behind the French and 58 points behind the Canadians. American students taking AP calculus lagged 65 points behind advanced math students in France and 20 points behind math specialists in Sweden. The Swedes specializing in science scored 99 points higher on the TIMSS physics test than Americans taking AP physics.” (p. 3)
In 2003, only 10.0% of all public school students attempted to take a Math & Science AP Placement Exam. In 2008, the proportion of all public school students taking an AP Exam in Math & Science rose to 13.2%, and out of those, only 56.3% passed, a nearly 5% decline in passing rates from 2003.
The most recent statistics show that nationwide, math education has become even worse in the last few years. According to the National Science Board, Science and Engineering Indicators 2016 Report (http://www.nsf.gov/statistics/seind16/), 17.4% of all the public school students in the United States attempted to take the Advanced Placement Exam in Math or Science in 2013. Of that number, only 55% (or 9.7% of all public school students) passed the exam at a level 3-5 (the total score for the AP exams is 1-5), sufficient to qualify someone ready for the university curriculum.
While no formal studies are yet available on the causes of the observed drastic decline in the quality of the U.S. Math preparation, the outcomes have already been documented. According to the National Science Board’s Science and Engineering Indicators 2016, the proportion of the U.S. undergraduate students who attended U.S. schools receiving Bachelor Degrees in the Science and Engineering fields has declined from 84.5% in 2008 to 78.7% in 2013. On the other hand, the relative proportion of the international students per average program in the Science and Engineering field has risen from 19.2% in 2008 to 24.2% in 2014. The situation is undoubtedly worse at the elite colleges, where the merit-based competition shuts out a much higher proportion of the U.S.-educated students.
What is the key problem and the following solution to advancing Math & Science education in our children? In accordance with the Georgetown study, the relative lack of secondary Math & Science preparation appears to take root in the elementary school and often much earlier. According to the National Science Board’s Science and Engineering Indicators 2016, the share of grade 12 students just meeting the required Math proficiency on the NAEP Mathematics Assessments was just 26% in 2013. The share of grade 8 students at the 8th grade proficiency standard was just 36%, with high schools effectively losing 10% of proficient students by graduation. And even at the 4th grade level, the share of students at or above the proficient level on the NAEP Mathematics Assessments was still only 42%! Assuming that most U.S. students are capable of capturing basic Mathematical concepts at the 4th grade level, the failing 58% of students suggests that something has to be done to improve the quality of Elementary and potentially Early Childhood education in Math & Sciences.
Figure 2. Proportion of the U.S. Elementary and Secondary School Students Meeting Basic Math Proficiency, 2013. Source: National Science Board (NSB). 2016. Science and Engineering Indicators 2016. NSB 16-01. Arlington, VA: National Science Foundation. Available at http://www.nsf.gov/statistics/seind16/.
Shedding the one-math-level-prep for all and encouraging creative problem-solving is the answer we believe in at St. John’s Math & Science Club. The advanced brain teasers coupled with hands-on examination of how things work is at the center of the new not-for-profit Math program for kids of different ages at the St. John Episcopal Church in Southampton, NY. Held weekly on Saturdays from 5:30 PM to 6:30 PM, the program aims to expand the kids’ universe of math & science, and make it not only accessible, but also fascinating to kids. The material engages kids with do-it-yourself scientific crafts and keeps their interest for long after the class is over with thought-provoking challenges like the dot problem at the beginning of this article. The club is open to all children grades K through 6. We are also looking for funding to expand the program as an after-school activity nationwide. For more information or to register, please email stjohns@.
Solution to the dot problem: