Thursday, August 25, 2011

Revolutionizing Math Education Through Operations Research and Applications

What if Math was taught through Applications?

Sol Garfunkel, the executive director of the Consortium for Mathematics and its Applications, and David Mumford, a professor emeritus of Applied Mathematics at Brown University, argue in an OpEd piece in today's New York Times that math education in the US needs serious "fixing."

Dr. Mumford taught for years at my alma mater, Brown University, from which I happen to have 3 degrees in Applied Math, with my PhD specialty in Applied Math being Operations Research. (A sidebar -- I also have a degree from Brown in Russian Language and Literature).

In the OpEd, How to Fix Our Math Education, they note the wide-spread of alarm in the US about the state of math education, and argue that the sequence of math courses that students (obviously, not all) take in high school, i.e., algebra, geometry, and calculus should be replaced by a sequence of applied math courses, focusing on finance (I teach in a finance and operations management department at the Isenberg School of Management), data, and basic engineering. They argue that math and science should be taught and learned together and the data course would focus on data-gathering from sports to medicine.

Garfunkel and Mumford state:
In math, what we need is “quantitative literacy,” the ability to make quantitative connections whenever life requires (as when we are confronted with conflicting medical test results but need to decide whether to undergo a further procedure) and “mathematical modeling,” the ability to move practically between everyday problems and mathematical formulations (as when we decide whether it is better to buy or lease a new car).

This sounds like Operations Research to me.

I would argue that a course on modeling and optimization should be included (with an overview of computing) and then students could select among a spectrum of courses in applications of their interest -- whether sport (by the way, the Isenberg School of Management also houses the McCormack Department of Sports Management), transportation & logistics, the environment and sustainability, and even the modeling and analysis of social networks!

Nevertheless, Garfunkel and Mumford have begun the conversation on a most important topic -- how to entice and capture the interest of high schoolers in quantitative literacy and math modeling and to sustain it.

By the way, Dr. Mumford received the National Medal of Science from President Obama in 2010. One of my former colleagues at UMass Amherst, Dr. Val Haensel, did as well, and the dinner at the Chancellor's house that I was invited to for the celebration, I will always remember. Val became a special friend and when I received the Chancellor's Medal for my research, he and his wife came to the dinner that followed. The then Provost, Dr. Cora Marrett, now at NSF, also joined us, and a dear friend, Dr. Kei May Lau, who is now a Professor in Hong Kong.