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Academics Say Make Math Cool to Promote U.S. Competitiveness

(Guest blogged by Daniel Castro)

A new study published last Friday in the Notices of the American Mathematical Society titled "Cross-Cultural Analysis of Students with Exceptional Talent in Mathematical Problem Solving" is aimed at rebutting the hypothesis of some scholars that men and women have separate "intrinsic aptitudes" for mathematics.  But the report goes a step further and argues that one important reason for the lower numbers of women in graduate level mathematics programs is that "it is deemed uncool within the social context of USA middle and high schools to do mathematics for fun; doing so can lead to social ostracism."

The study reviews female participation in rigorous mathematical challenges such as the International Mathematical Olympiad (IMO).  It found that some countries (such as Eastern European and Asian countries) produced more girls with "profoundly gifted" mathematical ability—that is not just merely bright and industrious students, but those with truly stellar potential.  The study also found that whether or not these girls are identified as such "is due, at least in part, to a variety of socio-cultural, educational, or other environmental factors that differ significantly among countries and ethnic groups and can change over time."  The authors argue that identifying these girls is necessary so they can be encouraged to stay in the field and utilize their talent.

In our innovation-based global economy having enough highly skilled scientists, engineers and mathematicians is critical for a country to be competitive.  Unfortunately, the numbers do not look promising for the United States.  Graduates in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields in the United States are increasingly foreign born—in fact, the number of PhDs awarded by American universities to U.S. citizens dropped by 23 percent from 1996 to 2006.

And as my colleague Stephen Ezell pointed out recently:

"U.S. annual expenditures per elementary and secondary school student relative to GDP per capita are the second highest in the world. Despite this investment, the performance of U.S. students in international assessments of math and science competencies continues to lag that of foreign students."

This issue was raised at the recent Innovation Economics conference in Washington, D.C.   A member of the audience asked a panel what the United States should do to boost home grown talent in STEM fields.

In response to the question, Phil Weiser argued that one key factor to improving the supply of domestic talent in STEM fields is to increase the number of women and minorities who pursue these degrees.  He applauded groups like the National Center for Women and Information Technology that are working to increase women’s participation in IT fields.

ITIF President Rob Atkinson agreed and pointed out the need for increased funding of STEM magnet high schools.  Currently these high schools enroll about 47,000 students a year—he’s called on policymakers to think big and increase funding for these schools with the goal of quadrupling enrollment to 250,000 by 2014.  These schools create the kind of supportive environment that allows profoundly gifted students to flourish.  Being a math nerd in one of these schools is cool.  Indeed, as a principal of one of these schools noted, in these schools, "females stop worrying about their looks and whether they will be popular.  Instead they compete with the males in their classes and find that the guys like them for their smarts and not just their looks."

Now if only we can make it cool for Congress to support such programs…