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Scientists pinpoint `calculus deficit' in nation's math skills

ECONOMIC prophets have exhorted Americans to face up to the ``budget deficit'' and the ``trade deficit.'' Now the National Academy of Science urges them to confront the ``calculus deficit.'' Declining national skill in this crucial type of math weakens United States ability to compete economically, warns the academy's Board on Mathematical Science and its Mathematical Science Education Board.

They have a point. Calculus permeates the work of scientists and engineers, of financial analysts and bankers, of military strategists and disarmament planners. Its utility in developing and maintaining science-based civilization is so great that mathematicians usually refer to it reverently as the calculus. Thus a drop in the ability of college students to grasp calculus, when it is relevant to their future work, is troubling.

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According to reports at a recent symposium sponsored by the academy boards, the problem lies more with students of standard calculus than with those who need a specialized version for business use. But it is the standard version that gives access to higher math and that has the widest usefulness.

A third or more of some 300,000 students who took the subject during the past academic year either failed or barely passed. In some institutions, more than half the participating students didn't finish the course satisfactorily. This prompted National Academy of Engineering president Robert M. White to warn that calculus ``must become a pump rather than a filter in the [educational] pipeline.''

To help meet this need, the National Science Foundation is soliciting project proposals as part of a $2 million ``calculus initiative'' to improve education. The meeting itself was only the first in a larger ``MS 2000'' effort of the two academy boards to review the state of mathematical sciences in US colleges and universities. New ways of teaching tough subjects, such as calculus, especially using calculators and computers, are being developed.

Important as these efforts are, they won't solve the problem of declining math skills until the American public at large is convinced of the need. Even with calculus, the trouble starts in elementary and high school, where basic math skills must be nurtured. It will take grass-roots support for substantially strengthened math teaching at that level to significantly reverse the decline in national math ability.

The recent stock market drop focused attention on budget and trade deficits. But few people link US economic performance with a calculus deficit. Along with curriculum development, surveys, and meetings, the academy boards need to mount a major public awareness campaign.

A Tuesday column. Robert C. Cowen is the Monitor's natural science editor.

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