Math Problems

By Liana Loewus — October 10, 2008 1 min read
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A new study has found that the U.S. is not effectively developing strong math skills in boys or girls, reports The New York Times. “We’re living in a culture . . . that’s telling everybody that only Asians and nerds do math,” said Janet Mertz, the study’s lead author.

Rather than looking at standardized test scores, the study, which will be published in Notices of the American Mathematical Society, relied on data from prestigious math competitions, such as the International Mathematical Olympiads. The results show that the majority of U.S. participants are immigrants or children of immigrants from countries that prize mathematical talent. Zuming Feng, who grew up in China and is now the leader of the United States Olympiad team, says that “in China math is regarded as an essential skill that everyone should try to develop at some level. Parents in China view math as parents in the United States do baseball, hockey, and soccer.”

Girls with exceptional math aptitude are even more rarely identified in the U.S. than boys. Since 1974, when the U.S. began participating in the International Olympiad, only three American girls have participated. Bulgaria has had nine girl participants and Soviet Union/Russia has had 13.

Melanie Wood, a former Olympiad, states that being a math whiz is more challenging socially for girls. “There’s that image of what it is to be a nerdy boy in mathematics. It’s still in some way socially unacceptable for boys, but at least it’s a position and it’s clearly defined.”

A version of this news article first appeared in the Web Watch blog.