Monday, July 30, 2012

Algebra -- Don't Knock It -- The Beauty and Usefulness of Math

I am sure that many of you read the Op-Ed piece in yesterday's New York Times that is creating, if not a furor, then, at least, a lot of discussion not only in scientific and engineering circles, but also in business ones.

The Op-Ed piece, Is Algebra Necessary?, was written by a retired political science professor, Andrew Hacker,  and argued that requiring algebra is not necessary.

Just read the following from his Op-Ed:

Mathematics is used as a hoop, a badge, a totem to impress outsiders and elevate a profession’s status. 

Sorry, the above statement is arrogant, and just promulgates math phobias.

I also strongly  differ from his conclusions: Think of math as a huge boulder we make everyone pull, without assessing what all this pain achieves. So why require it, without alternatives or exceptions? Thus far I haven’t found a compelling answer.

I do agree, however, with  the following comments by Hacker:

Peter Braunfeld of the University of Illinois tells his students, “Our civilization would collapse without mathematics.” He’s absolutely right. 

Algebraic algorithms underpin animated movies, investment strategies and airline ticket prices. And we need people to understand how those things work and to advance our frontiers. 

Quantitative literacy clearly is useful in weighing all manner of public policies, from the Affordable Care Act, to the costs and benefits of environmental regulation, to the impact of climate change. Being able to detect and identify ideology at work behind the numbers is of obvious use. Ours is fast becoming a statistical age, which raises the bar for informed citizenship. What is needed is not textbook formulas but greater understanding of where various numbers come from, and what they actually convey.

I use algebra every day in my work and I love what I do -- expressing network problems with a wide-range of fascinating applications from congested urban transportation networks to blood supply chains  through mathematics. Then I go about solving the mathematical models, with may be either optimization models or game theory models, and which are expressed through mathematical symbols.  I implement algorithms in software in order to make sense of a complex world and to suggest real-world solutions. Such research and teaching related courses never, ever bores me. And, I might add, my undergrad  students, whether in operations management, management science, or operations research, typically, get terrific jobs in industry and my doctoral students become professors at business schools (although several of my PhD students are in industry -- high tech and financial services).

Yes, algebra can be viewed as another language, and, indeed, that is the power of it -- the communication of relationships and  ideas in science, engineering  and business.

If so many can tweet and text with abbreviations that have entered the lexicon from LOL to Thnx (pick your favorite), why can't we make algebra understandable and accessible for all high school students in the United States of America?

The report of the National Mathematics Advisory Panel, which has a nice summary and discussion of algebra in Chapter 4, can be accessed here.  Dr. Schmid, who was one of the co-authors of this report, and is a Harvard University Professor of Mathematics, further explicates what algebra is and why it is important here. I especially liked his eloquent description:

Algebra involves three main circles of ideas, symbolic computation, the notion of function, and the process of translating problems into equations that then can be solved. Our list of major topics of algebra is an elaboration of these circles of ideas. The idea that one can compute with symbols as if they were numbers-provided one uses the rules that apply to computations with numbers-is absolutely crucial to algebra and all the mathematics that comes after algebra.

Expressing problems through mathematical symbols helps to move our civilization forward. Shouldn't everyone have an opportunity to be challenged and have jobs or opportunities within their reach?

If we were to teach math through applications, starting in high school, and this is something that operations research excels at, I believe that we would captivate more students, who would eagerly want to learn not only algebra 1 and 2, but linear algebra, and then calculus.

We need more problem solvers and they and we need algebra. 

Just look at the Forbes list of best-paying  jobs for women (brought to my attention by fellow blogger, Dr. Laura McLay).

Clearly, if you want to be paid well, algebra can help you. Why limit our children?