Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Math in the Media - First Do the Math

So, is extra high school math actually "good" for you? There is some evidence here....

An article in the Washington Post by Health and Science writer Rick Weiss (July 30, 2007), entitled "First, Do the Math" details the results of a study performed by researchers at Harvard and the University of Virginia. Basically, taking an extra biology, physics or chemistry course in high school provides a boost in grade values for the college versions of these courses. But only in the respective field of the course. And no boost is seen in the other fields.

However, taking an extra math course in high school provides a boost in all three areas plus mathematics. More bang for your buck in that plan. The money quote from the article:

"The one thing that helped students do well in all college science was having taken an advanced high school math class. That undermines a commonly held belief that math training is not particularly important or helpful for the study of biology."

I venture the same can be said for an extra college math course, or even a math minor. But, then again, I am biased....


Meiguoren said...

This appears only to be a correlational relationship, not a causal one.

Richard Brown said...

Oh, for the most part, it does appear this way! The article is only a quick announcement of recent results. So a full treatment of the findings would not be found there.

I haven't read the full report on the study. Hence I do not know to what extent the researchers controlled for correlations like: Many people like math simply because they are good at it and tend to take more math courses. And since people who like math tend to like subjects whose underpinnings utilize mathematics as part of their base language, they would do better in those subjects also.

However, if the authors are advocating a causal relationship and it does not exist, I believe the study would not survive the peer review necessary for publication.

I think I understand pretty well the effects advanced training in mathematics has on a persons ability to think analytically in general. So I find the result that taking an advanced math class in high school can provide a boost to later education in the natural sciences to be quite intuitive.