It’s Time to Rebrand Math
Math, it’s time for a makeover.
Too many people don’t find you attractive. Don’t feel like you’re approachable. Don’t feel like they really "get" you - or want to.
But don’t worry, math, say Claire Burke and Nicole Seaders, faculty colleagues in the math department at Linn-Benton Community College. It’s not you, it’s them. And the two instructors are here to change all that.
As with so many things, the catalyst was the global COVID-19 pandemic, when LBCC made the math placement test optional for incoming students. Now, students go through a series of questions to help them decide what math classes they should take.
The result: a lot of "math avoidance," Seaders said, with more students either declining to sign up for math at all or more of them withdrawing from the classes they do take.
The data show that students who do take the placement test have a 30% better chance of succeeding in their first class math. So how to get them to sign up?
"We even have a prep and learn module with it that gives some guided online learning to brush up," Burke said. "Maybe it's because we call it a placement test. Maybe if we branded it differently, they'd see it as a tool, like a physical. Maybe we can call it a math diagnostic."
They also want to get the word out that help is available. LBCC has a math café and a learning center, and instructors have office hours.
"We have resources to help you succeed," Seaders said. "Don't be afraid to ask for help."
Seaders and Burke are just getting started with their marketing makeover plans, looking into setting up activities that combine math with another discipline - art, maybe, or music - where they can invite students and staff to do something together that helps them learn.
"We know how people see themselves in math has a lot to do with their success in it, which is kind of surprising,” Burke said. "If we can change perspectives, we can help people be successful in their math classes."
That’s important for several reasons. Math-related jobs pay really well, Seaders pointed out, and the need for them is projected to grow, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Many of our current engineers and scientists come from other countries, prompting the U.S. Department of Defense to stress in a 2021 report to Congress that the United States needs to step up its STEM game.
The most practical reason, however, is that math is required in the first year for just about every educational program LBCC offers.
Automotive technology? Yes, Math 75. Nursing? Math 95.
Business Administration, Nutrition and Food Service Systems and Computer Science all require Math 111. For Early Childhood Education, Psychology, Music, Sociology, and Word Languages, it’s Math 105. Fail at math and a student can’t finish the degree.
Burke and Seaders noted another important factor, that research indicates the more math you do, the more your earning power rises. A 2001 study from the Public Policy Institute of California found that students who took the more advanced-level math courses during high school earned "significantly more than those who took only lower-level courses … even after accounting for the student’s demographic traits, family background characteristics and high school inputs and resources."
"People view it as a barrier, a hurdle, instead of as a stepping stone to future earnings," Seaders said.
The "hurdle" mindset - that math is just something to get through, is part of the branding problem, both instructors said.
Right alongside that is the pervasive American myth that there are people who are naturally good at math and people who aren’t. Both Burke and Seaders remember feeling that way themselves in school.
"We believe in the United States that people have a math brain,” Burke said. “If you take a long time or are slow, you're not good at it. This is actually completely false."
Added Seaders: "There’s not just one way of thinking to be good at or succeed in math. It's a skill. Maybe not everyone’s going to be an Olympic swimmer, but everyone can learn to swim. Maybe I will never be a grandmaster chess champion, but I can learn to play chess."
The more math you do, the more neural pathways your brain creates and the more math you’re able to do, Seaders said. The people who seem to have that “math brain” maybe already have the pathways, but that doesn’t mean others aren’t capable of creating their own.
"I want to fully acknowledge that math can be challenging. It can be hard. Just like art can be challenging, just like Spanish can be challenging,” Seaders said. "Everything is hard until you know how to do it."
Seaders said her four-year-old is currently learning to write her name. It doesn’t bother her that she can’t do it perfectly right away. That’s the mindset Seaders wants to bring to math.
"When we’re kids, it’s OK to make mistakes," she said. "Most kids are not embarrassed at having to ask questions. They want to try to do it themselves. They’re willing to fail."
"If we're a little more childlike, we'll learn a lot more."