So, how mathematical is your world?
By Chippla Vandu
A man walks down Broad Street in the commercial heart of Lagos, Nigeria, stopping people at random to ask the following two question:
"Can you solve for the root of the following equation?"
"Can you differentiate the following equation?"
People with some tertiary education (especially in the sciences and engineering) may need only a bit of time to provide the answers. But my bet is that most people on Broad Street will have no clue as to what it is they are required to do.
Mathematics. It is that dreaded subject that a large number of people feel they simply cannot understand. If there was one subject I observed that students were dead scared of in secondary school, it was mathematics.
Many students viewed mathematics as a subject made up of abstract concepts that had little or no use in the real world. "How on earth does knowledge of number bases, logarithms, algebra, trigonometry, bearings, vectors, statistics or even calculus aid one in the real world?" some had said. "These concepts are purely academic and once I'm through with my exams, I might as well forget about them."
University wasn't any different. Students of engineering who were meant to be lovers of mathematics appeared to have such dread for it especially in the early years.
Being compelled to learn tens of standard differentials and integrals and to think up quick ways of solving unconventional differential and integral equations were enough to make some students question if they shouldn't be studying the arts or humanities.In this article, which appears in the Nigerian Vanguard, Mr. Samuel Sule pleads with the Nigerian president to launch a "fight against mathematics failure." In his opinion:
In my opinion, the fear of mathematics had little to do with the inability of students to comprehend what was being taught. It however had a lot to do with the fact that these students were never really exposed to the practical significance of what they were being taught. A number of those involved in teaching of mathematics were also unqualified.
"The single greatest problem in developing nations of the world today is mathematics. Lack of mathematics is a threat to technology and development, thus creating a perfect breeding ground for corruption."
Mr. Sule further laments the fact that the alarming misconception about the difficulty of mathematics amongst Nigerian youths is a threat to the technological development of the country.
He also states that the fear of mathematics drives students away from studying science and technology related courses, which are the bedrock upon which the future of any nation should be built:
"The future of any nation depends solidly on her youths. Until a nation begins to think positively about her youth, she will definitely remain unfruitful in all her life. For a nation to be rated a developed state, it does not have any thing to do with her natural resources; neither does it have any thing to do with her human resources; it has nothing to do with her age; but it is indispensable of technology."
In all sincerity, I couldn't agree more with Mr. Sule, provided one replaces the word "mathematics" with "science and technology education."
The failure rate in mathematics (at least when I was a student) is alarming. And the truth is that every single technological innovation of the past 300 years can be attributed to mathematics—from the description of the orbitals in atoms to the design of processors used in computers. Even the design and construction of refineries, requires well-grounded understanding of mathematics (and engineering!)
Mathematics is a tool and can rightly be called the language of science and technology. Mathematics is the language that scientists and engineers use to communicate their works, results or discoveries to the wider world.
Just as open market traders need to understand the basics of addition, subtraction, multiplication and division (and you sure bet that Nigerian traders understand these very well)—else they would go out of business—scientists, engineers and technologists need to have a thorough understanding of calculus, trigonometry, vectors, statistics and probability...in order to build bridges, construct dams, design and build airplanes as well as design and build chemical plants which produce the petrol, kerosene, plastics and medicinal drugs which we use each day.
Mathematics is not some baseless abstract concept but a subject grounded in the real and perceivable world. Furthermore, most aspects of mathematics are not difficult.
If well taught, the average 14 to 17 year olds should be able to properly comprehend integral and differential calculus—provided of course that he or she has had the requisite prior studies in mathematics.
A nation and people that fail to build on science and technology are bound to remain a net consumer of technology. In the process of consuming technology, it may build up a large service industry, hard core technology.
We must encourage young people to take mathematics and education in general more seriously. MTV might make education look like a waste of time, but it sure isn't.
Chippla Vandu is a Nigerian academic and writer. He blogs as chippla
How can we encourage young people to switch from MTV to learning mathematics?
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