The Language Barrier of Interdisciplinary Studies

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SEATTLE--While ideas for how to interweave the teaching of mathematics and science were a hot topic at the annual meeting of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics here, there were many indications that posing the question can be as difficult as answering it.

Donna F. Berlin, a researcher at Ohio State University, noted that several successful curriculum projects fuse the two disciplines into a cohesive whole.

But she added that experts in both domains often have difficulty just speaking the same language.

Math educators, for example, tend to refer to the process of combining the disciplines as "making connections,'' while science teachers use the term "integration.''

The difficulties of interdisciplinary interaction were also highlighted in a session on the impact that the N.C.T.M. standards have had on Project 2061, the science-education-reform project of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Representatives from the project's six test sites all said that math was integral to their efforts, as well as to "Science for All Americans,'' the association's reform blueprint. But they cited few specific ways that the math standards have influenced their work.

Perhaps more telling was the example given by Sue Matthews of the Elberton County, Ga., team, who said that science and math teachers there were working closely together until the latter left the project en masse to take part in a math-reform effort called Project Litmus.

A session called "The Xs and Whys of Mathematics for All Students, By Any Means Necessary'' by Lee V. Stiff, a math educator at the University of North Carolina, invoked the spirit of the late Malcolm X to underline the importance of access to higher math for members of minority groups.

In a presentation reminiscent of a revival meeting, he argued that the failure to encourage black and Hispanic children to succeed beyond arithmetic has far-reaching social consequences.

Referring to a previous presentation by Robert Moses--the director of the Boston-based Algebra Project who, in the 1960's, was in the forefront of efforts to desegregate the South--Mr. Stiff argued that, because of its role as a "gatekeeper'' for college-bound students, enrollment in "algebra becomes a civil-rights issue.''

He also displayed the grade records of children who attended an unnamed, predominantly black school in North Carolina, noting that they excelled in introductory math classes but that school officials steered them into general math on the pretext that "there was not room in algebra class.''

It's not every day that someone who has earned more than $1 billion by applying math to "real-world problems'' shares his vision of the future.

Which may explain why 30 minutes before William H. Gates, the chairman and co-founder of the Microsoft Corporation, was scheduled to speak, a cavernous room in the Seattle Convention Center was filled to capacity and hundreds of teachers were being turned away at the door.

And the developer of the MS-DOS operating system for personal computers and other wildly successful programs didn't disappoint his audience. He invited the developer of a geometry drawing program that uses Microsoft's Windows interface to demonstrate his wares and introduced "Encarta,'' a CD-ROM-based encyclopedia that is Microsoft's first foray into educational software.

He said "Encarta'' is the first of a coming wave of CD-ROM-based products whose capacity to store sound, data, and images for the computer seems ready to transform the software industry.

"I think we'll see the markets for software in the home and software in the school really blur so that there won't be this distinction between'' them, he said.

The growing use of CD\ROM is "the beginning of the move toward the digital future'' that will dovetail with and encourage the development of the "information superhighway'' promoted by the Clinton Administration, he said.

Similarly, he said, as computer technology advances, "we'll see tools that allow you to write software ... so that a very high percentage of the new education software will actually be written by people like those of you here,'' he said.

The 37-year-old Mr. Gates described himself as a "poor student'' in Seattle's Shoreline school district who convinced a math teacher of his abilities and subsequently "hacked'' his way into a school computer system, an experience that set him on the road to success.

"Bill, I thank you for your early days of hacking and what you have become as a result,'' Richard Stucky, a Shoreline district administrator, said in introducing Mr. Gates.--P.W.

Vol. 12, Issue 29

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