Wednesday, April 10, 2013

"Repeat after me: I'm a math person."

By Marilea Jungman, RME Project Specialist

“I’m not a math person”. It’s a comment you hear, usually said with chagrin and a shake of the head. It’s a phrase that creates a divisive line. There are those who are math people, and those who aren’t. Not being a math person is a perfectly acceptable label. Or is it? Do we ever hear people say, “I’m not a reading person?” No!

At our research-to-practice conference in February we heard from a panel of experts on STEM, the role of mathematics, and the critical state of the current pipeline. Ken Fenoglio, President of AT&T University represented the needs of the workforce and the demand for advanced skills – AT&T employs 40,000 advanced math professionals.

Dr. Fred Olness, SMU Physics professor, highlighted the numerous advantages that a STEM education can provide:

  1. get a job 
  2. keep a job 
  3. keep a life

For every 2.5 STEM jobs available, there is 1 qualified candidate. Conversely, for every 1 non-STEM position, there are 3.3 unemployed candidates competing for that job. And, the average annual compensation for STEM occupations is three times the per capita income in Texas. Dr. Olness provided real-life examples of the importance of mathematics to everyday life, but he also pointed out what he called, “million dollar mistakes.” From an error in a calculation for an architectural design to inaccurately measuring the length of a cord for a bungee jump, Dr. Olness showed us that lack of proficiency in STEM can lead to very costly mistakes. STEM is all around us.

So, very clearly we know it pays to be a “math person”. Where do we start? Who is responsible? I’ll be the first to admit, the dreaded phrase has fallen from my own mouth. But as a parent, and as a member of a research in mathematics education team, I realize the mindset has to change at a very individual level – it’s a phrase I certainly don’t want my young daughter or son to hear, much less say.

Our unit recently hosted a group of parents at SMU and we challenged them to think of simple ways to integrate mathematics into daily life. From plotting a garden, mathematics in art, measurements in baking, as well as board games such as Chutes and Ladders, the opportunities to explore and connect to mathematics is considerable. RME researcher Dr. Candace Walkington has performed studies aimed at the personalization of algebra. In other words, for students, especially struggling learners, having word problems in a context that interests them increases their likelihood of not only attempting, but correctly answering a problem they normally would have simply avoided. You can read the full text of the article here.

What steps will you take to be a math person?


  1. Do you all have "I'm a math person" stickers? That is so cool!!!!

    1. We do have stickers! Send us an email at and we'll get back to you with more information!

  2. researchinmathematicsApril 12, 2013 at 11:51 AM

    What steps will you take to be a math person?


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