I got whiplash from a series of math-related stories in the news yesterday.
First, I read the inspirationally-titled "National Competition Shows that Math Smarts are Alive and Well in America." The article describes the most recent installment of Moody's Mega Math (M3) Challenge. The M3 challenge is a high school applied math competition sponsored (obviously) by Moody's, the credit rating and financial services corporation, and by the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics. In the competition, five-person student teams have one day "to solve an open-ended, realistic, applied math-modeling problem focused on a real-world issue." This year's challenge was to determine the best U.S. locations for establishing high-speed rail lines.
My spirits soared over the strong mathematical future soon to be built by our nation's youth. Or at least, they soared for about two seconds, until the universe smacked me back down to earth with the second article, "Parents' poor math skills may lead to medication errors." Here's the horrifying scoop. It's long been known that poor reading skills can lead to dosing errors. But a study recently presented at the Pediatric Academic Societies conference examined whether poor math skills play a role too. Investigators engaged 289 parents who had brought their children (under eight years old) to a certain pediatric emergency department. The parents were given a reading test and a math test, and were asked to dispense some medication. The results showed that
Nearly one-third of the parents had low reading skills and 83 percent had poor math skills. Twenty-seven percent had math skills at the third-grade level or below. 41 percent of parents made a dosing error. Parents' math scores, in particular, were associated with measuring mistakes, with parents who scored below the third grade level on the math test having almost a five times increased odds of making a dosing error.
One of the investigators commented
Dosing liquid medications correctly can be especially confusing, as parents may need to understand numerical concepts such as how to convert between different units of measurement, like milliliters, teaspoons and tablespoons. Parents also must accurately use dosing cups, droppers and syringes, many of which vary in their measurement markings and the volume they hold.
I am no statistician, but from the brief description of the sampling scheme, I could certainly conjecture that any number of confounding variables could be at work here. Still, after reading this article, I was left wondering how our country has any live school-age kids to speak of given the massive ibuprofen and antibiotic overdoses that we are assuredly inflicting on them.
Reading these two math-related articles in quick succession made me wonder: do we have a one-percent problem when it comes to mathematics? We certainly have a mathematical elite, and we certainly have many who struggle. Do we have a healthy mathematical middle class?
One possible solution for raising math abilities in this country, as inadvertently suggested by yet a third math-related article I read yesterday, is simply for us to all get bashed in the head and become geniuses.