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It's time for Americans to overcome their fear of math, science


​In a rousing address, a university president—who is also a mathematician—urged participants of the annual Advanced Technological Education (ATE) Principal Investigators conference this week to rethink their approaches to teaching math and science in order to raise the competence of all Americans in these subjects.

“Our challenge, colleagues, is to help Americans get over their fear of math and science,” said Freeman Hrabowski III, president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC), who recently led the National Academies of Science committee that wrote on expanding science and technology opportunities for minorities.

The first step involves dispelling the myth that people either have an aptitude for math and science or they do not. 
“Most people can do what we do, if given the opportunity, if given the high expectations to believe it,” Hrabowski said, later adding, “People learn at different rates, but they can do it.”
He noted that UMBC has helped students from underrepresented populations succeed in math and science by organizing support groups among students so they gain ownership of the material by talking about math and science outside of class.
Improving students’ language skills supports their acquisition of math, Hrabowski said, explaining that “the stronger somebody’s language skills, the stronger their thinking skills will be, and the more apt they are to be able then to work on word problems.”
Digging into data
The university president urged the conference attendees to study data regarding which students succeed and which do not, focusing on students’ characteristics and strengths, in addition to personal and financial circumstances.
One of the recommendations of the Committee on Underrepresented Groups and the Expansion of the Science and Engineering Workforce Pipeline, which Hrabowski served on, was to provide both low-income as well as middle-income and working-class families with the financial support to succeed, he said.
“We understand a grad student needs support, but we somehow don’t understand that if someone is doing something in biotech or IT (information technology) and they have to work 30 hours on the outside, it is almost impossible to complete the program because … it cannot be a part-time thing,” he said. “You’ve got to be there every night working on it.”   
To recruit students, Hrabowski told the technical educators gathered in Washington, D.C., it is essential that they improve peoples’ perceptions of technical careers by showing students and their parents the successes of students—from incomes to job satisfaction—who participated in their programs.
“It’s very important for families to have a sense of the possibilities,” he said. “Most Americans don’t know how a particular program connects to particular job opportunities.”
The ATE model
ATE programs can serve as a model for making math and science more accessible to students, noted Joan Ferrini-Mundy, acting assistant director for the Directorate of Education and Human Resources (EHR) at the National Science Foundation (NSF).
NSF awards ATE grants to improve the skills of technicians who work in advanced technology fields that are essential to the nation’s economic development and security. In addition to innovative programs at community colleges, ATE activities encompass outreach to high school students, professional development for teachers and college faculty, and research on technician education.
In particular, ATE encompasses basic research, disciplined-based research, small-scale implementation, capacity building of institutions and people, and large-scale deployment of innovations, Joan Ferrini-Mundy said.
“What’s exciting about the ATE program is it covers all these areas. It is the only program we have in EHR that really has work going on across this full spectrum,” she said.
The federal science agency is currently looking for a cross-cutting ways to address community colleges’ role in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
“In addition to ATE, we are looking for ways to strengthen our community college involvement across all of our EHR programs, particularly the other programs in the Division of Undergraduate Education and our programs in the Human Resource Development Division,” Ferrini-Mundy said.