Is America in a Math Crisis?

February 10,2015

NEW YORK— It is often said mathematics is a cornerstone of learning. Communications, computer science, the arts, the Internet, space exploration - all are based on underlying mathematical concepts. In its most recent international survey, the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) ranked the United States in 27th place for student performance in math. What are the causes and what is being done about it?

Mathematics is more than arithmetic. Scientists, and philosophers throughout history have called it the foundation of all knowledge, and praise its simple beauty.

Yet many Americans seem to have a problem with it. In a recent survey, one in three Americans admitted that they're not good at math.

Here at Mercy College in Dobbs Ferry, outside New York City, nationally renowned mathematician and Dean of the School of Education, Albert Posamentier, knows why.

“Elementary school teachers in this country, and Europe as well, are part of that general population and consequently they bring that dislike of mathematics subconsciously, sometimes consciously at other times, to the classroom and as a result the teaching mathematics at the elementary school level lacks motivation, lacks enthusiasm. The enthusiasm of the teacher is extremely important in turning kids on to the subject matter," said Posamentier.

Turning kids on to math is the goal of the National Museum of Mathematics in New York City. It’s a one-of-a-kind museum that resembles a high-tech playground with more than 30 hands-on attractions.

MoMath Executive Director, Cindy Lawrence:

“And as a nation we need to get kids more excited about math and about science, technology, and engineering because that’s our productivity, that’s our workforce," said Lawrence.

Every day the museum is filled with busloads of excited schoolchildren and adults. You can sit on a chair at the center of “Hyper Hyperboloid” surrounded by colored cables that never touch; or ride a square-wheeled trike or a coaster rolling on giant acorns.

“I learn a lot more than I am learning currently but it's really just a lot of fun to see all the different things that look like just games when they’re actually just math," said Sera.

“It probably makes mathematics seem less scary than a lot of people think it is," said Lew, Sera's grandfather.

“It feels like I just learned something. It’s like a huge thing for me because I just solved the difficult question," said Kevin.

The goal is to get students used to connecting cool exhibits like robot swarm with the math that makes them possible.

Dean Posamentier says it is important to remember that America’s relationship with math doesn't keep students away. More than 800,000 foreign students come here each school year to study the sciences, business, and, of course, mathematics.

Daniela Schrier contributed to this report.