Even scientists suffer from math anxietyBy Queena N. Lee-Chua
Philippine Daily Inquirer
We fear mathematics for many reasons: terror teachers, learned helplessness, neglectful or pressure-inducing parents, society’s denigration of deep thought, instant gratification, lack of motivation, failure in examinations, among others.
When I was starting out as a science writer, my professor, Doreen Fernandez, warned me, “Every equation will decrease your readership by half.” But in the next breath, she said, “Don’t let that stop you. Filipinos need to be exposed to substantial matters.”
Judging from the mail I get, many Filipinos continue to read this column despite its math and science content.
But I admit to simplifying scientific concepts, and I usually try to describe a phenomenon in words rather than use equations, except for E = mc², whose simplicity, elegance and beauty every educated person needs to be familiar with.
I understand, though not always empathize with, students not liking math (I face them every day). In our transition to
K to 12, I even understand, though disappointed, grade school teachers who are reluctant to teach high school because they are not comfortable with higher math. I understand the dilemma of algebra teachers who do not feel confident to handle geometry, and vice versa.
I have tried to help everyone teach, learn, confront, deal with and use math effectively. I admit I often feel despair.
The feeling got worse when I read the June report in the “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.” Apparently, many scientists experience math anxiety, too.
When biologists Tim Fawcett and Andrew Higginson of the University of Bristol in England studied a database of scientific articles, they found that the more equations a paper had, the less likely it was to be followed up or mentioned by other scientists.
These are not run-of-the-mill college instructors but full-fledged biologists, often at the cutting-edge of research in various fields, where advanced math is frequently used to model life processes. In the past, biology majors had only been required to take college algebra to fulfill math requirements; now they have to do calculus. And calculus is pretty basic in terms of the math needed to do serious research.
“Increasing the equation density to more than one equation per page more than halves the number of nontheoretical citations,” said Fawcett and Higginson.
This was exactly what Doreen meant. She warned me more than 20 years ago about the math fears of the public. Little did we know that even scientists had math phobia.
“Math is getting more and more important because complex biological processes are hard to understand without using math models,” Higginson told ABC News. “The problem may therefore be getting worse.”
Fawcett said if biologists were turned off by equations, then “no one will perform the crucial experiments needed to test those theories … present[ing] a barrier to scientific progress.”
Five years ago, the first National Biotechnology Quiz Contest for High School was organized by the National Institute for Microbiology and Biotechnology-University of the Philippines (UP) Diliman, the Biotech Coalition of the Philippines, the Philippine Society for Microbiology Inc., and the Molecular Biology and Biotechnology Society. Regional contests were held around the country to choose the finalists. The national finals were held in March 2008 at the Bureau of Soils and Water Management in Quezon City.
This year, the second National Quiz will finally be staged by the Department of Agriculture’s Biotechnology Implementation Program and the Philippine Academy of Microbiology. Cynthia T. Hedreyda, chair of the first contest, will also head the second, to be held simultaneously with the National Biotechnology Education Conference for Teachers on Nov. 22 at UP Diliman.
Public and private high schools are invited to join. A written preliminary round will identify at least ten semifinalists for the next round of orals. Three high schools with the highest points will compete in the finals. First, second and third prizes are P35,000, P30,000 and P20,000 in cash, respectively.
Only preregistered teams or schools can compete in the National Quiz Contest. Send the names of students, school and coach before Nov. 9 to Cynthia Hedreyda at email@example.com or text to +63917-5231255.
I first met Sorsogon Rep. Salvador Escudero III, who passed away recently, a decade ago when I gave a lecture on math to the Foundation for Upgrading the Standard of Education. Escudero listened intently and, after the talk, he offered sensible recommendations, his wide grin filling us with cheer all throughout.
As chair of the House committee on basic education and culture, Escudero knew the harsh reality of improving education in the country. Instead of grandstanding, making grandiose promises never to be fulfilled, he was humble enough to listen to other people’s ideas and even took notes.
Escudero knew relevant facts and figures. When we met a few times later, we discussed possible linkages between government and academe.
Unlike many politicians with links to entertainment or dynasties, Escudero was dean of the College of Veterinary Medicine at UP Los Baños and the minister of food and agriculture in the mid-1980s.
I will always remember him as a man of wisdom, humility and cheer. My sincerest condolences to his loved ones.
E-mail the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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