Tech Uses Math to Open Doors for Prospective Students

Math is a four-letter word. Intimidated by its perceived complexity or convinced that the subject has no relevance outside the classroom, many students shun math for more literary pursuits. But the universal language is everywhere. The world economy is built on math. From the computing revolution, to advances in medicine and space exploration, to shopping over the Internet, nearly all the major advancements of this and the past century have their foundations in math. Yet despite the subject's pervasiveness, many students and parents continue to fear math.

Georgia Tech is working to change that perception through educational outreach programs and a new math competition. This Saturday, the school is holding its first high school mathematics competition in nearly 50 years. The goal is to attract both students who are experienced in mathematics competitions as well as untapped talent.

"Math opens doors to almost every discipline," said Georgia Tech Math Professor Yang Wang. "It teaches students analytical abilities that are valued in a number of non-math professions."

Tech alumna Mary Beth Young, who received a Master's degree in math, said that studying math has helped her tremendously in her law practice and during her stint as a law clerk for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.

"Math accustoms you to rigorous thinking and following through the implications of an argument. It helps you identify logical problems, which is useful in law and many other disciplines," she said.

Tech is using Saturday's competition as a recruiting event with activities for both students and parents. Approximately 250 high school students from Georgia and neighboring states are expected to turn out for the competition that will consist of two hour-long tests followed by fun activities centered around math. The day begins at 7:45 a.m. in the Instructional Center at 759 Ferst Drive on the Tech campus. While the students are busy with the exams, parents and teachers will hear talks from Tech's admissions counselors and mathematics professors. Students, parents and teachers will also tour campus during the afternoon.

"There's a lot of talent that can be cultivated," said Wang. "The competition is one way we're hoping to do that."

Graduate students such as Gail Rosen are another way. Rosen is a fellow in Georgia Tech's Student and Teacher Enhancement Partnership program (STEP). She spends several days a week teaching trigonometry, pre-calculus and physics at Tri-Cities High School, a visual and performing arts magnet school in Fulton County.

"A lot of students will say they don't like math, but I think they don't realize how important it is," said Rosen. "Even the honors students don't all understand why they need to know math."

Rosen said she's been teaching her students how math comes up in everyday life from simple things such as calculating credit card interest to creating music, a topic that hits home at the magnet school. She's bringing eight students from Tri-Cities to the competition.

Music is math you can hear. Rosen demonstrated how computer programs use sine waves to make sounds. "I have the students add two sine waves and they make a dial tone and then I have them add more, and they see they can make other sounds," she said. The demonstrations, said Rosen, gave the musically inclined a new respect for math.

A new respect is needed. According to an assessment done by the National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES) in 2000, Georgia still lags below the national average in math performance in grades four and eight. And Georgia had the lowest average math SAT score of any state in the country last year. To boost performance, the Georgia Department of Education is proposing the adoption of a more challenging math curriculum, modeled after Japan's curriculum.

But if students are to increase their interest and skill in math, Georgia's universities will have to do their part. In addition to the STEP program, Tech also sends approximately 100 students to tutor fourth-graders in the subject. Led by the Center for Education Integrating Science, Mathematics and Computing (CEISMC) and the Center for the Enhancement of Teaching and Learning (CETL), Tech is investigating other ways to reach out to Georgia's students in math so that when it's time for them to apply to college, they'll have what it takes to become a Ramblin' Wreck from Georgia Tech.