Monday, May 4, 2009

10 Things All Future Mathematicians and Scientists Must Know (but Are Rarely Taught)

One of our favorite activities is sitting outside on the porch in this perfect spring weather, reading together and discussing something interesting.

We stumbled across a great book, which has had us reading and discussing for a while now. Most of the 10 things in the book are common knowledge to adults, at least most adults who have been involved with any kind of science or math. However (and it's a big however), there have been many instances where adults have ignored these truths, resulting in embarrassment or even disaster.

Edward Zaccaro, in The Ten Things All Future Mathematicians and Scientists Must Know (but Are Rarely Taught), lists the 10 things with specific examples of each one ... the kids and I talk and talk about the issue and how things could have been done differently. He also includes discussion questions at the end of each example, but usually we've already discussed all of them by the time we finish the section.

Here are the 10 things:

1. Math and science will tell you the truth. Here he gives a great example of how the Challenger disaster could have been avoided if the managers had listened to the engineers.

2. Your mind can be fooled (counterintuitive thinking). One of the examples he gives here is the classic "Let's Make a Deal" game show quandary: which door to choose?

3. Occam's Razor. (When you're searching for an explanation for a strange or unusual event, the simplest or most down-to-earth explanation is usually the correct one.) A sudden hole in your backyard is probably not the latest landing site of a spaceship.

4. Mistakes and frustration are a part of learning and a part of life. This point I read to G three times, just to make sure he heard it. :) One great example he gives is the rescue of the Hubble telescope.

5. It is important to keep an open mind. Many of the greatest ideas of the past were ridiculed, such as the idea that ulcers were caused by bacteria. 

6. It's important to maintain a healthy skepticism. Keep an open mind, but not so open your brains fall out. Whether or not you agree with his examples, the point still stands. (Many of his examples in this chapter are what some might call "new age.")

7. Don't be fooled by statistics. With my minor in statistics in graduate school, I was all too aware of how numbers can be manipulated to give the results a researcher wants. If one statistical test doesn't give the answer you want, try another!

8. You must know the difference between causation and correlation. The classic example is that most people die in hospitals. Causation or correlation?

9. People will be faced with making ethical decisions in their careers. Think of the Pinto (a car in the 70s) that would explode when hit from behind. Ford didn't fix the defect for almost 8 years, simply because it was cheaper to pay off the families of the injured and dead than to recall the cars and make the repairs (which some sources say would have cost about $5 per car to make).

10. Bias is everywhere. One example he gives here is how researchers used to pick and choose the subjects that would be used in a drug trial, a far cry from the randomized trials we see today.

All in all, this book is an engaging way to talk about interesting, important issues with kids. As jaded adults, we tend to assume that everyone knows all of these tidbits. But our children don't yet have enough life experience to have learned these things just yet.

Some of the examples can be pretty sad, but they definitely bring home the points that Zaccaro is making. If we listen to the wisdom of math and science, the world would be a safer and more rational place.

(Zacarro is author of the acclaimed Challenge Math books.)


  1. Camille, What is Challenge Math? Do you use it? Great points for discussion - these 10. I think kids ought to be exposed to complex logical thought from a very young age. --Deepa

  2. I especially love #4, #5, and #10! This book sounds awesome.

  3. I love the image of you all sitting on the porch and discussing these things. My kids are so young that intense discussions don't happen often, but anything close to it is so rewarding that it reminds me of why we homeschool.

    Hey, you figured out the blog photo thingie without my help! Nice job. Looks like Narnia.

  4. Misty, #4 is my favorite. This is something the kids and I talk about over and over ... how genius is more due to effort and failure than innate talent. The people who are highly successful aren't necessarily the ones who are the smartest, but those who were the most determined. It's hard to get across, when our society puts so much pressure on being "smart." Our heroes are all presented to us as having gifts from birth (Einstein, Tiger), but we don't hear as much about people who failed over and over and finally succeeded because of sheer determination.

  5. Hannah, that's actually our backyard. I just cropped and squished the photo and then blurred it and lightened the color. Narnia, hmm. That's kinda scary to think that's right out our back door!

  6. My favorite is number 6.