Home » Education » Teaching Problem Solving Skills in Math and Science, Part 2

Teaching Problem Solving Skills in Math and Science, Part 2

September 9, 2011


In yesterday’s post, I discussed a number of recommendations that have been offered about how to get more students into the fields of math, science, and engineering. As I stated in that post, I believe that teaching children how to solve problems using those skills beginning with their earliest exposure to education is the best way forward. By the time someone is college age, it may be too late to convince him or her to enter studies in math and/or science. Colleges are nonetheless working with businesses in some interesting ways to keep students in those fields from looking outside the field for employment.


Florine Church, from BestCollegesOnline.com, contacted me about a post her company published entitled 10 Cool Ways Colleges are Collaborating with Businesses. Practical problem solving is one of the “cool ways” that businesses and colleges are collaborating. For example, mechanical engineering students from Cedarville University helped a Dayton, Ohio, company that employs people with disabilities provide more opportunities “by taking on a project to create devices that would allow these disabled workers to quadruple their output.” In another project, professors and students from North Carolina State are teaming with IBM “to improve web services and decisions through service-oriented computing.” In an ongoing project called “The Hub,” Syracuse University and JP Morgan Chase have teamed to create the Global Enterprise Technology program that permits “students and corporate workers … to develop innovations for education and … industry … [and] prepare[s] students for real life technology careers.” Two other examples are:

“At the University of Cincinnati, students work together with several large companies to create products that are useful for consumers aged 50 and over. Students have collaborated with Citi, P&G, Hill-Rom, Kraft Foods, Boeing, General Mills, and LG to turn the needs of baby boomers into final concepts for products. … [And, finally,] the Medical College of Wisconsin’s Department of Radiology has worked on a few projects with General Electric Medical Systems. Together, they have created CT scanners, diffusion-tensor magnet resonance, functional magnetic resonance imaging, and a next-generation exam room. In particular, the CT scanner project has been a long term program that has granted the college worldwide recognition.”

If educational systems were aimed more at problem solving than at rote learning for standardized tests, both the students and their eventual employers would be the better for it. When it comes to teaching math, there is one name that has to be mentioned. As Dan Meyer, a high school math teacher and Stanford University PhD candidate in education, told Bryant Urstadt, “If you’re teaching math in this country right now, then there’s pretty much no way you haven’t heard of Salman Khan.” [“Salman Khan: The Messiah of Math,” Bloomberg BusinessWeek, 19 May 2011]. Perhaps the best way to introduce Salman Khan is through the following video.



Although the video indicates that Khan has developed 1800 math lessons, according to his website, the number is now over 2400 lessons. The site also indicates that those lessons have been delivered over 71 million times. That’s a lot of teaching. Khan’s journey into math education started seven years ago when he was asked to tutor his niece, Nadia. Urstadt continues the story:

“Nadia was headed into seventh grade in New Orleans, where Khan had grown up, but she hadn’t been placed in her private school’s advanced math track, which to a motivated parent these days is a little bit like hearing your child has just been diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease. In particular, Nadia was having trouble with unit conversion, turning gallons into liters and ounces into grams. Math was something Khan, then 28, understood. It was one of his majors at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, along with computer science and electrical engineering. He had gone on to get a master’s in computer science and electrical engineering, also at MIT, and then an MBA from Harvard. He was working in Boston at the time for Daniel Wohl, who ran a hedge fund called Wohl Capital Management. Khan, an analyst, was the only employee.”

Some people blame the financial sector for drawing off America’s math talent with compensation packages that can’t be matched by other sectors. Khan may be a case in point. Urstadt continues:

“Being a bit of a geek, Khan put Yahoo!’s Messenger to work to help Nadia, using the Doodle function to let him illustrate concepts for his niece as they spoke on the phone. Then he wrote some code that generated problems she could do on a website. With Khan’s help, Nadia made it into the fast track, and her younger brothers Arman and Ali signed on for Khan’s tutoring as well. Then they brought in some of their friends. Khan built his site out a little more, grouping the concepts into ‘modules’ and creating a database that would keep track of how many problems the kids had tried and how they had fared, so he’d know how each of his charges was progressing. Messenger didn’t make sense with multiple viewers, so he started creating videos that he could upload to YouTube. … He posted the first video on Nov. 16, 2006; in it, he explained the basics of least common multiples. Soon other students, not all children, were checking out his videos, then watching them all, then sending him notes telling him that he had saved their math careers, too.”

Visit the Khan Academy website and you’ll be astounded at the array of available courses in both theoretical and applied mathematics. In fact, the list is so extensive that it might scare some people off. Don’t be scared. Khan is a user-friendly guy. A careful search should allow you to find just the course you need to answer a question you may have. Khan’s courses are so popular that Urstadt reports he has become “a quasi-religious figure in a country desperate for a math Moses.” Like Moses, Khan is leading his followers into the promised land. The future belongs to the technically adept and you can’t be technical without some math skills. Also, like Moses, he offers his leadership for free (although he gratefully accepts donations). His courses are so effective that Urstadt reports they have supplanted textbooks in some classrooms. Urstadt continues:

“Khan is more than just popular. He’s a darling of America’s amateur educational elite—people such as Bill Gates and John Doerr—who write checks and invite him to speak at their functions. Many of his followers are tech leaders, who understand more than most how dire America’s standing in math education has become and what it may mean. In its 2010-2011 Global Competitiveness Report, the World Economic Forum ranked the U.S. 52nd in the quality of math and science education. Khan’s March speech at TED 2011, the ideas conference in Long Beach, Calif., was met with an immediate standing ovation and capped by Gates, who interviewed him onstage about the project.”

As the above video demonstrates, “Gates is one of Khan’s biggest fans.” With an increasing number of courses and a growing number of fans, Khan can no longer operate the Academy alone. Urstadt reports that when he visited Khan in his new office in Palo Alto, CA, the “office was nearly empty, save for a few desks and three of eight employees, including Shantanu Sinha, the chief operating officer, who had left consulting firm McKinsey to join Khan.” The Khan Academy is a non-profit organization; but, not because Khan doesn’t care about money. He told Urstadt, “I do care about money.” However, according to Urstadt, Khan “wasn’t and still isn’t sure the Khan Academy should be a business.” He explains:

“Because it’s a nonprofit, it’s able to attract all kinds of talented dreamers, many of whom work for free. ‘We’re getting talent money can’t buy,’ says Khan, mentioning the newly hired Dean of Open Source John Resig, an expert in the Java programming language. Giving away his curriculum means Khan doesn’t have to tailor it to states such as California and Texas, which, by wielding enormous ordering power, end up shaping textbooks for many other states. … ‘What you have in most education software is that they’re catering to the decision-maker who makes the budget allocations, and that decision-maker has a lot of check boxes,’ says Khan. … “They could care less about the end user experience. We’re very bottom up. The for-profit guys, as soon as they incorporate, they start lobbying for grants and selling into school boards and become essentially dependent on navigating this huge bureaucracy, and they completely lose sight of the end user. It’s the opposite of what we’re doing.'”

Clearly Khan provides enormous value and has accomplished a lot of good. As popular as his courses have been, until last year he really wasn’t much of a fund raiser. Urstadt explains:

“Khan survived on donations and savings until the spring of 2010, when he got an e-mail from PayPal saying that someone had just put $10,000 into his account. It turned out to be from Ann Doerr. He wrote her his thanks and said that since she was his largest donor, he would love to name a school building after her, if the Academy had a campus. A lunch followed, and Doerr expressed shock that she was Khan’s biggest donor. She put a check for $100,000 in the mail, insisting that he take a salary. More important than the money, she has become a cheerleader for the Khan Academy and often stops by the office. ‘Sometimes,’ says Khan, ‘she even brings cake.'”

Urstadt reports that textbook publishers, like McGraw-Hill and Pearson, are “not surprisingly … building online offerings.” But they will have a difficult time competing with Khan since he “wants his stuff to be free.” If you click on the link to the Khan Academy, you can watch several other videos about Khan’s work, including his presentation at TED. If you’re the parent of a promising young student, you might want to take a few of these courses yourself so that you can help your student excel. You might even fall in love with math yourself.

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