VOLUME 33, NUMBER 4 THURSDAY, September 20, 2001
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Parents' attitude affect kids' interest in math

Karwan says parents' bad attitudes can unwittingly "help" kids perform poorly

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The alarming shortage of engineers throughout the U.S. has spurred numerous proposals on teacher training, curriculum and special programs, all geared toward boosting the sagging interest of American schoolchildren in science and mathematics.

But one of the most important factors in shaping the interest of children in science and math—the attitudes of their parents—is rarely mentioned, according to Mark H. Karwan, and they play a large and sometimes detrimental role.


"In general, parents are no help with this," said Karwan, an industrial engineer and dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. "All too often, I hear them say, 'Well it's okay if little John or Jane doesn't do well in math, I was no good at it either.' That is a terrible thing for parents to say."

Karwan is a member of the Council on Competitiveness and the Engineering Deans Council of the American Society of Engineering Education.

"Parents can't dictate what fields their children should be interested in," he stressed, "but if at too early an age a child is allowed to dismiss math and not to consider it important, then that child is missing out on the opportunity to go into a whole host of some of the most rewarding and lucrative careers in the world."

Only 5.4 percent of the bachelor's degrees awarded in the United States are in engineering, compared to Russia and Japan, for example, where the figure is nearly 20 percent. The global average is 13.8 percent.

This shortfall in homegrown engineers—as well as in Americans trained in computer programming and other fields requiring a foundation in mathematics—has major implications for the nation's ability to lead in innovation. To compensate for it, Congress in recent years has granted special visas annually to more than 100,000 foreign workers in these fields that allow them to work in the United States.

"Some of the same people who deplore the fact that the government is allowing these foreign workers to take jobs here in the U.S. don't realize that their own attitudes toward science and math partly could be responsible," Karwan noted.

But the special visa program will have to continue, he added, unless American parents start to change the attitudes they have toward math.

And that change has to start early in a child's life.

Karwan said that national studies show that up until the fourth grade, American students can keep pace in math with those in the rest of the industrialized world, but proficiency starts to decline between the fourth and eighth grades, and from there it drops further.

"Because science and engineering are such demanding fields to study in college, students must do at least fairly well in these subjects during high school if they want to even consider pursuing them later on," said Karwan.

He added that if by the time a child gets to the eighth grade he or she has decided that math is a "drag" and is earning poor grades in the subject, that child has pretty much eliminated the possibility of ever becoming a scientist or engineer.

"It's not that every kid should grow up wanting to be an engineer," said Karwan, "but give your kid a chance. There should be equal opportunities for all our children. They should all have equal opportunities to have rewarding, well-paying careers eventually, and many of these happen to require success in math."

What should parents do to get their kids interested in math?

Karwan said they might actively begin encouraging their children to practice math, in much the same way many already encourage their children to practice musical instruments.

"How many kids are encouraged to start playing an instrument in the fourth grade?" he asked. "It's because the parents actively encourage it, often despite resistance from their child."

Karwan noted that while some children do end up dropping out of band or orchestra, many persevere, which is why there are so many excellent high-school musical groups.

Parents also need to take an active interest in their children's math homework and review it with them, not as drudgery, Karwan said, but as something in which they are genuinely interested.

"Children need to be encouraged to work at math," said Karwan. "Once they begin to do well in it, they may start to like it and then they will have more career opportunities open to them."

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