Monday, July 5, 2010

Motivating students motivated by their future career

I stumbled upon a now six month old piece from the New York Times today: Making College 'Relevant'.  It discusses the trend, well known to everyone in academia, of colleges and universities catering more and more to students' desires to use college as job training.  This is a much graver issue for the liberal arts majors than for the sciences, as a science heavy major is seen as one which will net a high paying job.  Mathematics has long straddled the gap between liberal art and science, so even though we might not be hurting for majors, I believe this trend is still worth worrying over.

Even if the top three jobs in the U.S. are mathematics based, mathematics education can suffer from students too concerned with their future earnings.  These students are the ones who complain when we show a proof of the mean value theorem, instead of just give them the formula to memorize.  They complain that they don't want to learn this or that, because "when will they ever need to know that?"  Of course they are missing the point of mathematics if this is their approach.

Luckily there is hope of a compromise.  In the article it is reported that a survey by the Association of American Colleges and Universities of employers who hire at least 25% of their workforce from two- or four-year colleges found that 81% asked for better “critical thinking and analytical reasoning skills.”  This is kind of mathematics thing.  So now we have yet another argument for why students need to know the definition of the derivative: it will build greater critical thinking skills, which in turn will (sigh) make you more money.

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