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U.S. economic health requires math, science literacy

Hockfield urges national math panel to invest in K-12
MIT President Susan Hockfield
MIT President Susan Hockfield
Photo / Rick Friedman

MIT President Susan Hockfield told a national panel Sept. 14 that the future of the economy is at stake if the United States doesn't beef up the number of college students majoring in math and better prepare high school graduates for college-level classes.

Hockfield addressed the National Mathematics Advisory Panel created in April by President Bush to advise the president and the secretary of education "on the best use of scientifically based research to advance the teaching and learning of mathematics."

"It could not be more clear that we are now in an era where technical and scientific literacy are as critical as language literacy," she said. "Technology increasingly drives today's economy, which simply requires the skills based on mathematics."

Hockfield pointed out that only 6 percent of U.S. undergraduates are likely to pursue careers in engineering, compared with more than 40 percent in China. "We need to fix the K-12 pipeline that feeds higher education, and we need to support investments in students. Other countries have already figured this out and are building up their human capital.

"To succeed in the workplace and to participate as citizens in society, high school graduates need the ability to think analytically and solve problems creatively," she said. "Science and math education are prerequisites for innovation."

Hockfield gave examples of MIT initiatives that help secondary school educators, including OpenCourseWare, which now has more than 36,000 people reviewing its content daily, and MIT iLabs, which allows students to conduct real laboratory experiments remotely from any Internet browser. She also encouraged the panel to consider computer-based simulations and other tools as supplements to the classroom environment.

The 17-member panel met Sept. 13-14 at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard. Speakers included mathematics teachers, members of the National Science Foundation and textbook publishers. Hockfield gave opening remarks at the beginning of the second day, which featured comments from participants and the public.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on September 20, 2006 (download PDF).

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