• Joanne Jacobs

They passed calculus, but can't add fractions


Alex Small, who teaches physics at Cal Poly Pomona, keeps seeing students who passed calculus in high school, but aren't prepared for college math.


"Some students aren’t sure if 30% and 0.3 are equivalent; some think that adding one-third plus one-fourth yields one-seventh," he writes.


Thomas Edison disliked math.

Others can solve an equation with a variable named "x" (a common label in algebra), but "they worry if I label it 'E' or 'v”' (common labels in physics)," Small writes. "The equivalence of these situations is among the most important lessons of algebra."

AP Calculus should be only for those who've mastered the fundamentals, he suggests. Let the not-so-prepared spend 12th grade "revisiting algebra, sharpening core skills and applying those skills to a variety of problems."


Requiring future scientists to pass calculus makes as much sense as requiring math majors to pass biology, argues Robert C. Thornett in Quillette. "Math and science are distinctly different fields, and a talent for one does not imply a talent for the other."


Darwin found studying math "repugnant," Thornett writes. (Darwin's cousin, statistician Francis Galton, helped him with data analysis.)


Thomas Edison loved chemistry, but had a “distaste for mathematics" as a boy, he wrote in his memoirs. As an inventor, he wrote,“I can always hire a mathematician, but they can’t hire me.”


Alexander Graham Bell, Michael Faraday, and E.O. Wilson also struggled with math, Thornett writes.


He believes statistics is far more useful for most students, including would-be scientists.

What if, for example, instead of spending months learning about derivatives, quadratic equations, and the interior angles of rhombuses, students learned how to interpret financial and medical reports and climate, demographic, and electoral statistics? They would graduate far better equipped to understand math in the real world and to use math to make important life decisions later on.
And far more scientific information circulates in the form of statistics than in any form related to calculus.

Some students, such as future engineers, need calculus, Thornett concludes. But it's not for everybody.


In my day, I was able to apply to top colleges without taking calculus or physics in high school. I may have peaked too soon in math, but I can add fractions, calculate decimals and multiply 8 x7 without a calculator. I know a few laws of physics, picked up in seventh grade. Inertia is my favorite. I get inertia.

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