Many students are disenfranchised from mathematics because they do not see how the subject as they study it in school applies to their everyday lives and future careers. Although we might like all students to be drawn to study mathematics by its elegance, to appreciate its patterns, rigor, and structure, and to learn through its study to think abstractly and reason logically, a curriculum aimed at such lofty goals can result in convincing many students that they lack some innate ability and are thus doomed forever to be “bad at math.” The insecurity that this engenders then becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy that endures into adulthood, and mathematics instruction becomes a barrier not only to further education but to career goals as well.

The current math curriculum and pedagogy all too often produce students who are ill-prepared for employment in the technical workplace. Employers report that, despite studying mathematics in every grade from kindergarten through high school and beyond, the graduates they hire often lack the ability to tackle the kinds of problems that typically arise in the workplace. For example, while the “renaissance” in manufacturing is a positive development for the economy, employers surveyed for the Manufacturing Institute’s 2014 Skills Gap study reported a problem – a “sizeable gap” between the talent they need and that available on the job market. The respondents – over 450 manufacturing executives – listed math skills among the most serious deficiencies, along with technical and computer skills, and problem-solving ability. An ACT analysis of skills gaps in four industries including manufacturing found significant “foundational skills gaps” particularly in applied mathematics (Manufacturing Institute, 2015).

The Needed Math Conference, held from January 12 to 15, 2018, brought together employers in three STEM fields (biotechnology, manufacturing technology, and information and communication technology), post-secondary instructors of technical subjects related to those fields, and mathematics educators. There was consensus among conference participants that there is a significant gap between the math that students are taught, tested on in school and retained beyond school experience, and the mathematical skills and abilities they need to solve problems commonly found in real-world contexts and that this likely contributes to the undersupply of skilled workers prepared for successful careers in STEM-related fields. Employers felt there will be a continued need to revisit math curriculum to ensure that it aligns with the needs of technicians in the 21st Century workplace.  Anecdotal evidence suggests that the inadequate mathematical preparation among high school graduates is reflected in a gap between the number of applicants for training in STEM fields and the number of academic openings available.

The problem is complex and the solutions to it are correspondingly varied, but the basic recommendation from the conference is that the mathematics standards, assessments, and curriculum be revisited and revised so as to place greater emphasis on the skills needed to solve the kinds of problems that arise in the real world. Although the participants at the conference represented only STEM fields, several of them noted that the kind of mathematical skills useful in those areas – e.g., mathematical modeling, statistical reasoning, and systems thinking – are valuable in many other career paths.

We recognize that implementing the recommended changes will be a complex and challenging undertaking, one that is likely to take years to accomplish and that will engage a great many diverse communities with varying interests and constituencies. Therefore, to support the effort, we recommend placing greater emphasis on contextualized math instruction. We urge an increased focus on mathematics topics that support teaching math in context and a corresponding shift in emphasis in the instruments that are used to assess learning. We argue that the current mathematics-for-all curriculum and assessment framework should be augmented by establishing a separate mathematically rigorous pathway based on realistic problems representative of those that many students will encounter after they leave school.

Continuing the dialogue among groups that appear disparate but are united in their greater goals is essential. In an ever-more connected world, there is little excuse for not creating a platform for such communication. This conference could be the seed that gets developed into a full, easy-to-use communication line between the various disparate groups concerned with math curriculum, teaching/assessing, and utilization.

Needed Math Conference Overview

The conference brought together 50 individuals representing three groups: employers (from 10 states), community college and secondary school instructors of technical programs (from seven states), and math educators (from seven states). Three STEM domains were represented at the conference: biotechnology, information and communication technology, and manufacturing technology.

The conference was organized by a Steering Committee comprised of ATE Center directors/co-PIs, a former NSF ATE program officer, industrialists, secondary school and community college teachers, mathematics educators, researchers, and education administrators. An external evaluator helped design the conference logic model and examined the conference outcomes in relation to stated goals. Domain-based Steering Committee members extended personal invitations to employers of STEM technicians and instructors who are actively engaged in improving education within their technical fields. The mathematics educators on the Steering Committee invited math educator colleagues who are active and respected members of their professional communities. The conference focus on needed math provoked great interest from constituent groups. Notably, employers’ enthusiasm was remarkable. Some companies fully supported attendance of their representatives financially, enabling the conference to exceed its attendance targets. Appendix A lists the participants and the members of the Steering Committee.

The conference topic attracted enthusiastic participation. Small- and large-group discussions and debates were lively, given the diverse backgrounds of the participants, but the atmosphere remained entirely collegial, mutually respectful, and focused on outcomes.