In U.S., math is for nerds — and Asians

Math is “uncool” in the U.S., discouraging students from pursuing their talents, according to a study published in Notices of the American Mathematical Society. Girls, especially, are likely to underplay their math interests to avoid being labeled a nerd.

Researchers looked at super-talented, “one-in-a-million” students. In international math competitions, some countries produced far more female math aces than others.

The study found, for example, that in the history of the math olympiad, Bulgaria — a country with fewer than 8 million people — has sent a total of 21 girls. The United States has sent three.

From 1988 to 1997, the Soviet Union’s (and later Russia’s) teams were, on average, 20 percent girls. In the same period, the U.S. teams had none. Between 1984 and 1990, East Germany’s teams were 11 percent female, while West Germany’s were 100 percent male, (researcher Janet) Mertz points out, suggesting that genetic differences between countries, if they play a role, can’t be the whole story.

Top math students in the U.S. often are immigrants or the children of immigrants from countries that value math and think everyone can learn it if they try hard enough, the study concluded. (In Silicon Valley, they’re the children of immigrants who got visas because of their exceptional talents in computer science and engineering.)

In the last two years, 13 U.S. girls have competed in the Girls’ Math Olympiad in China. All but one are of Asian descent.

Ana Caraiani, 23 and a graduate student in math at Harvard, is a two-time Romanian International Olympiad gold medalist. “In Romania, math is not considered as something you need to be a nerd to do,” Ms. Caraiani said. “Math is about being smart. It’s about having intuition. It’s about being creative.”

A Bulgarian immigrant taught my daughter geometry and then calculus. He was a good teacher, but that cultural thing didn’t rub off. And her father failed to pass on his math genes.

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  1. In a country where creativity is considered a wishy-washy thing that is stifled by the merest hint of rote learning or mental discipline, of course math is uncool. Math is mental disciple. It’s fact and logic, things considered to be the antithesis of creativity and coolness.

    Until we change our attitude about creativity to reflect the reality of it, we’ll have trouble convincing people math is worth studying. We’ll also have trouble engendering true creativity, but that’s another discussion.

  2. Here’s my question–what sort of jobs are there for people with degrees in math? The piece mentioned teaching and math research, neither of which sound all that fascinating or lucrative. Does math help an investment banker or MBA? (Not that financial services jobs are so cool right now.)

    Were the card-counting casino kids math majors? I’m not suggesting that math isn’t important, but decrying the lack of people interested in math without proving that math is indeed interesting and that a degree in math can lead to a career with a decent salary seems counter-productive.

  3. I know a young woman who got 800 on her math SAT, graduated from Harvard with a math degree and went to Wall Street to earn very big bucks as an analyst. Of course, I don’t know if she’s employed this week.

  4. I have a PhD in math, and have had a number of very interesting jobs. I worked for the Navy doing research on how to parallelize algorithms for broad-band sonar (i.e. looking for quieter submarines more quickly), I worked at a series of software startups, had a couple of stints working on research projects at Stanford, and I’m now doing another startup (perhaps not the best timing, but we’ll see).

    I’ve had friends with math backgrounds make huge amounts of money on Wall Street, at Amazon, at Google, and at Cisco. I’ve never made
    huge money, but I’ve always been paid well and there is plenty of work to be had. A strong math background actually helps you think outside the box in ways that are disciplined enough to be useful in technical fields, but give you an edge over people with more specific training. Of course you have to learn the “other stuff” to apply the math, but that’s usually not so hard if you know enough math.

  5. Math is a gateway discipline. Kids need to hang in there through high school calculus, and not give up to “preserve their GPA”.

    If a student hasn’t taken the required math courses, there are whole fields that they will not be able to enter – computer science, engineering, biochemistry, even advanced biology, which increasingly uses sophisticated data analysis techniques (and requires a high level of math knowledge). Minimal math leaves students being restricted to majors like liberal arts, poli sci, social work, elementary ed, and communications. None of them bad majors, but VERY poorly paid fields with poor job prospects.

    Except for education, most graduate study requires a fair amount of math.

  6. John Dewey says:

    Bravo, Linda F. Many comment threads get distracted with “what’s the value of a math degree” when in fact we’re talking about math as gateway not as end-result. But to each his own. We all need places to rant.

  7. When my sister was in grade school, I showed her how neat basic algebra was. She thereafter did well in math, and after college earned her master’s in radiation physics, and much later her PhD in medical engineering.

    I liked math, but had problems with the extreme conceptual stuff, so after problems with Calculus of Real Variables (senior level college math), I eventually went into engineering, which was much more fun from my perspective.

    In response to Kate, yes, many card counters banned from casinos were math majors. I knew one who put herself through college by winning in casinos using card counting.

    As for other fields of endeavor, statistics is frightfully useful for any scientific experiment in fields ranging from climatology to economics to plant genetics. I always wished I had taken more statistics. Even my wife had to learn basic statistics for her Ed.D. degree.

  8. I don’t believe in “mathematical predestination”, that you’re either good at math or not, and it’s all determined genetically. Only in the US do we accept that kind of thinking.

  9. Doctoral work in education requires a lot more math than English does.

    I haven’t really used any math more sophisticated than arithmetic since I took calc in college, but I don’t think there’s such a thing as the English v. math dichotomy people like to lay claim to. I always have math geniuses in my AP Lit course.

  10. Amazingly Linda F’s nice post *understates* the value of math. In graduate doctoral programs in fields such as economics and polisci, math majors are often favored over those who majored in the social sciences. And I understand that math majors are also looked on favorably by law schools (assuming the requisite high LSAT scores).

  11. “Does math help an investment banker or MBA?”

    Business degrees are highly math-intensive. That really should be obvious, particularly from your first example. How would math help an investment banker? Why, what an excellent question. How, indeed, might math help someone whose job is essentially running the numbers?

    However, this is nothing new. University faculty will proudly brag about their own math ignorance.

  12. Ben Fuller says:

    And isn’t it special that the article is all about how girls are missing out, when there are much higher numbers of boys who are both highly talented in math and cast aside by the system. It’s not as if billions a year are not being spent on outreaches and special scholarships just for girls in math, science, engineering, and CS.

    What happened to all the “men’s studies departments” all over the continents? How about a title IX for gender studies for equal spending on men and women? Let women’s studies be devastated like men’s sports were by title IX. All those Olympics medals lost for lack of training. All those men who never went to college so women could get tiddly wink scholarships.

    Gotta luv it.

  13. Many comment threads get distracted with “what’s the value of a math degree” when in fact we’re talking about math as gateway not as end-result.

    I find folly in bringing this discussion down to the cute and often meaningless pieces of paper we call degrees. Really, the value of learning math, real math with the horrors of multiplication tables, standard algorithms, and *gasp* right answers is that it introduces to the mind an entirely different way of considering the world. It’s a kind of disciplined outlook that produces things like airplanes, automobiles, and the internet.

    So often, by teaching “math appreciation” in place of math in our schools we rob kids of the opportunity to experience this outlook. Instead, we fill them with the idea like “any answer is the right one so long as you explain how you got there”. Then, later, when they encounter real math for the first time they hate it because it’s unfamiliar and unforgiving.

    At this point, they are cut off from understanding so much of the world, from the sciences to the inner workings of music. They not only don’t have the knowledge to understand them, they don’t have or appreciate the mindset needed to understand them.

  14. I know a math major who got a six-figure job right out of college as an actuary…

  15. The WSJ had a column a few months back that showed recent college graduate salary averages: salaries for math majors were among the highest. There are plenty of interesting jobs that pay well for people that are know math and are good at it…


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