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Mathematics for Technical Employees

by Martin Nahemow, LRDC, University of Pittsburgh


There is a lot of talk these days about integrating the learning of mathematics with technical education through joint efforts by mathematics and technical faculty. The challenges are a lot like those in Bosnia: deep basic lack of trust and understanding between people who are really not that different from each other, yet each side believes that it is all right that others die rather than that they compromise their own beliefs.

Change starts by getting educators, parents, and students to accept that academic disciplines are a semantic artifact created by academicians and have no other reality. More and more world class companies are relying on self-directed, cross-trained, interdisciplinary teams to compete.

The starting point for the training of workers in these companies is understanding of and agreement on shared goals. What are the goals for the education of young people? I hope we can agree that a critical goal is that they be prepared to compete successfully in the job market, that "successfully" means meeting both financial and personal goals, but that there are also social, family, and individual goals to achieve outside the work world.

Now consider that half the youths will not go to college. What level of understanding and ability to apply mathematics to what kind of problems do they need to meet their life goals? This is what we must assure that all students achieve. Of the half that go to college, half never graduate. So the next question is: Do they need something different and, if they do, how do we assure that they have the opportunity to build on foundation skills for that additional knowledge?

Then we have the quarter of the youths who will finish college. What goals do we need for them? Lastly there is the small percent who will use advanced mathematics in their careers. The needs of this group to meet their goals cannot be allowed to drive the curriculum for the rest.

If you look at the secondary school mathematics curricula in Denmark and Holland, good examples can be found of going from contextual real-world problems to basic mathematical principles in ways that assure that all students learn the practical, contextual side of mathematics without depriving anyone of the opportunity to learn the mathematics itself.


Martin Nahemow is Director of School-to-Work Programs at the Learning Research Development Center (LRDC) at the University of Pittsburgh. He can be reached by e-mail at nahemo@pop.pitt.edu.




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Last Update: June 17, 1997