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Sheila Tobias

Author; Consultant, Alfred P. Sloan Foundation

An interview by Vicki Sanders

In May, Sheila Tobias, author of Overcoming Math Anxiety, received an honorary doctorate from WPI in recognition of her groundbreaking research into biases that affect the way math and science are taught. For the past five years, she has been leading an initiative to develop new degree programs that broaden the training and career choices of aspiring mathematicians, scientists and engineers.

What is the critical question facing college math and science education today?

We have to start by asking, why are there so few women in math and science? Then comes the more interesting question: Why are there so few students? This line of inquiry led me to a critical analysis of the presumptions of faculty as to who will do science and engineering and how does early talent manifest. As a result of bias or narrow thinking, a lot of people have been excluded from these fields or not encouraged to try them in the first place. The excluded include minorities and humanists who've been made to feel inadequate in science, engineering or math.

Why is it important to be more inclusive?

It's a political imperative. The goal is to break the stranglehold of lawyers and finance people on the power structure of economics and politics and to open those areas to more varied types. In countries with which America needs to compete, leadership is more widely distributed among people with different backgrounds, including engineering and the sciences. You need diverse types of thinking to get creative results.

What about math and science turns off college students?

Huge introductory classes don't let them play with the sexy, exciting stuff. Worse, when students ask, "What do we do with this degree?" professors, who have spent their lives as researchers, give the wrong answer. They should say it's a fine liberal science foundation that will be welcome in medical, law or business school. But they don't because they view these courses as a first step toward a Ph.D. When 40 percent of the students leave, departments don't say (as Toyota would if it were losing that many customers), "What are we doing wrong?" Rather, they conclude that those exiting are simply not suited.

Why are you shaking up conventional beliefs?

I'm trying to save science and math from themselves. If left to its own devices, the current research-oriented leadership would continue to define, narrowly, the curriculum and the types of jobs it wants to train students for. My background is history and political science. When we train 1,100 majors, we expect only 1 percent to become research political scientists. Physicists want 99 percent of their majors to be research physicists. We have to break that belief system down.

What are the new degrees Sloan is sponsoring?

They are called professional master's degrees in the sciences. Before, people thought of master's degrees as failed Ph.D.s or mini-Ph.D.s. These non-research-focused degrees prepare graduates to run big enterprises, universities, newspapers or government because they are problem- (not research-) oriented for applications in business and industry. WPI is one of 30 schools offering these degrees (it has two, in industrial mathematics and financial mathematics).

What makes math and science hard for so many students?

The subjects are vertical--one concept builds on another. If you miss something like division or fractions or a fundamental theorem of algebra, you're missing a key concept on which you cannot build. Science and math are difficult to teach well, even assuming faculty goodwill, because students have to move step by step rather obediently. For the lecturer, who has mastered the concepts, the procedures, quite as much as the answers, are "obvious."

What about the notion that some people are born with the ability to do math?

Math and science are presumed to require a special quality of mind; you either have or don't have a "mathematical mind." I don't believe that. But as soon as young people hit difficult concepts in math and science, they may presume that if they can't do it today, they may never be able to. We don't give nearly enough attention to the benefits of hard work in these fields. We require hard work, but at the same time, philosophically, educators denigrate it. Students who are having a rough time are invited to leave math and science, which is terribly damaging to the ego and to the country as a whole.

How is WPI faring in addressing these issues?

WPI's approach is compatible with my ideas. It is trying to invent a "liberal science" model. Students are encouraged to explore. From their first year, they work on team projects--they don't just sit in a chair taking notes. Their opportunities to work abroad are unique in the United States. At big state universities, by contrast, the goal is to keep science students in lockstep. They wonder, "How do you take students to Bangkok for seven weeks? They'd miss nuclear physics." The liberal perspective, the trust, and the opportunity to mix with different cultures on a team project at WPI are absolutely marvelous.

--Vicki Sanders, a free-lance writer and editor who lives in Brookline, Mass., is co-editor of this issue of Transformations

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Last modified: Jul 25, 2008, 10:11 EDT
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