Adventures in Ethics and Science

News from Inside Higher Ed: Apparently there’s a movement afoot in U.S. colleges and universities to add math requirements and add “quantitative reasoning” content to non-mathematics courses. You might guess, from my post on the “who needs algebra” column, that I view this as a good thing. And you’d be right.


From the IHE article:

One of the first things students have to do upon setting foot on campus at Wellesley College is to take a quantitative reasoning assessment. Some questions, judging from past exams, are basic algebra, while others test a student’s ability to apply numerical concepts. One question from a past exam gives the New Jersey hate crime rate — 13 crimes per 100,000 residents — as cited in a New York Times article, and asks how many hate crimes were committed in New Jersey in 1994 if the population was 8 million.

“The test is looking for students who are weak,” said Corrine Taylor, director of Wellesley’s quantitative reasoning program, which began in 1997. Taylor and other experts agreed that life in the 21st century is awash in numbers that people need to understand not only for their professions, but also to be competent citizens.

Judith Moran, director of the Math Center at Trinity College in Connecticut, “started life,” she said, as an art major. Now, like several of the faculty members questioned, Moran said she wants all students to be able to assess numbers in The New York Times. Trinity students also get their quantitative feet held to the fire on day one, with quantitative literacy assessment. Students who fail any part of the exam, “logical relationships,” for example, have to take a course that will help them “wake up and smell the quantitative roses around them,” Moran said. If a student aces the quantitative literacy test, they’re done with the requirement. But Moran is pushing to make sure quantitative roses spring up beneath their feet no matter what department they enter.

For example, she worked with Dario Del Puppo, director of Italian programs at Trinity, so he can talk math with students studying Dante. When Dante, at the end of Paradise, is confronted with the vision of God, he tells readers that he cannot possibly explain the image, no more than a geometer can square a circle. “Squaring the circle is one problem from ancient Greece that has been proven undoable,” Moran said. “It’s a perfect analogy to impossibility. If someone doesn’t know math that Dante thought his readers would know, they miss out.”

In another case, Moran, working with Latin American history students, examined figures in scholarly works given as the number of Hispaniola natives wiped out after first contact with Europeans. The numbers, she said, “are remarkably varied. One of the estimates would give much of Mexico higher population density at that time than England. There’s hundreds of papers written, and yet the math underpinnings, if not spurious, are at least questionable.”

(Bold emphasis added.)

It’s not only mathematicians and scientists who need to be able to think quantitatively and logically. It’s good for other purposes, too, whether evaluating historical claims or calculating the tip for dinner. And, learning any species of reasoning is always better than not, because it puts you in a place where you don’t have to take some chucklehead’s word for what’s reasonable — you can evaluate it yourself!

Power to the people through mathiness!

Comments

  1. #1 Roberta Millstein
    March 1, 2006

    CSU East Bay just added an upper division science course with quantitative reasoning as part of our G.E. program (this is in addition to the lower division quantitative reasoning course that we already had). I had no idea we were “cutting edge.” Sad, really.

    (Hi, Janet! We really should have that lunch/coffee soon!)

  2. #2 Bryan
    March 1, 2006

    Nearly every day i run into people who have the same quantitative hiccup, percentages. My pet peeve is when people go to leave a tip and they pull out those little cards. The math is so basic but people are too lazy/incompetant to use it. As Peter Griffin would say: That really grinds my gears.