Thursday, December 12, 2013
GORHAM - The 1988 film "Stand and Deliver" chronicled the Bolivian engineer Jaime Escalante, who went from a lucrative position in an aerospace firm to teach mathematics, including calculus, to inner-city Hispanic students in Los Angeles.
The writer says mathematics in Maine's public schools needs to be taught at a much higher standard if the state is going to be able to attract manufacturing with high-paying jobs.
The Associated Press
For the students, the experience was transformative.
They went from a destiny of working, at best, at McDonald's to a bright future open to all possibilities.
Escalante demanded hard work and commitment from his students. In return, he took a group of students often written off by society as destined for failure, and positioned them for success.
The theme of the movie was best summarized by Escalante's comment that "math is the great equalizer."
Individuals who are proficient in mathematics find that useful and rewarding careers are open to them regardless of their original socioeconomic status.
Moreover, they find that proficiency in math opens up life possibilities that would otherwise be denied to them.
Mathematics proficiency means more than just knowing how to add the cost of items on a grocery list. It means, among other things, the ability to reason quantitatively, to use symbolic logic (algebra), to ascribe dimensions to shapes and to describe and compute directions and motion.
Much is said of the need for individuals educated in the STEM (science, technology engineering and mathematics) disciplines.
But at the heart of these is mathematics.
Current manufacturing practice is mathematical in nature, as are fields such as accounting, economics, finance and architecture.
The design and construction of roads, bridges and dwellings requires a good facility with mathematics and with associated software. Even the ubiquitous one-individual general contracting business increasingly requires the use of mathematics for layout, dimensioning and efficient costing of materials.
American students are poor in mathematical proficiency when compared to students in other developed nations.
This is a development which has been coming on for a long time.
It was foreseen, but did not seem to be an existential threat to a nation where, by casual observation, most seemed to be doing pretty well economically.
The last decade, however, has brought about a seismic shift in needs and opportunities for the global work force.
While the crystal ball is still somewhat murky, two generalizations can be made.
• First, unskilled or untrained workers will find it increasingly difficult, if not impossible, to command a living wage.
• Second, the prosperity and security of nations, states and individuals is directly related to the skill sets that they collectively and individually possess.
Paramount among these is mathematics proficiency.
A June 10 column in the Maine Sunday Telegram ("Manufacturing holds key to prosperity in 'Rim Counties' -- and state") brings forth the problem faced by both the state of Maine and many of its citizens.
The column, by Charles Laughton, highlighted the quandary of the rim counties, those which are the most rural and the least open both to the sea and to efficient transportation.
The column suggested that manufacturing, because of its higher wage scales, could be a means of alleviating the low wage scales prevalent in this area.
Such ideas are interesting, but they overlook the features of modern manufacturing that allow its employees to command premium wages.
An examination of high-wage manufacturing facilities in Maine (for example, Bath Iron Works, Pratt and Whitney, Texas Instruments, Fairchild Semiconductor and Idexx in Westbrook) shows a common feature.
They all depend on the ability of the work force to deal with technologies and procedures that are essentially mathematical in nature.
So any effort to bring manufacturing or, indeed, any high-paying jobs to the rim counties or anywhere else must start with the availability of a work force with a good deal of mathematical acumen.
If there is one single step for work force development that the state of Maine could take to make it more attractive to high-end employers, it would be to mandate and enforce a much higher standard in what is taught and what is learned of mathematics in the public schools.
This can be done by carrot or stick but, if students are to have a chance for careers that pay living wages, they must have these skills.
Likewise, if the state is to attract firms that pay such wages, it must have a repository of individuals with higher-level math skills.
Math and employability go hand in hand.
James W. Smith is associate professor of engineering at the University of Southern Maine.