Calculated Change at Smith

For decades, students could get by without taking any math -- but perhaps not for much longer.
June 13, 2006

When analyzing a new business, what's an acceptable profit margin? When an antibacterial product claims that it kills 99 percent of all germs, what exactly does that mean? What’s the difference between messages among politicians on deficit spending?

Such questions affect a majority of American citizens, but many administrators and faculty members at Smith College, a private liberal arts college for women in Massachusetts, are worried that their students aren’t receiving the necessary skills to contemplate them.

That thought had long been in the back of some Smith educators’ minds, but concerns coalesced after administrators spent the past months inviting alumnae to share their thoughts on how a Smith education has influenced their lives, work and values.

According to Carol T. Christ, president of the college, she’s received many e-mails and letters about what the college could be doing better, especially in terms of helping students digest and act upon mathematical information. Several graduates, who now work in a variety of fields, from government operations to journalism to non-profit leadership, have told her that everyday life has presented many challenges that don’t necessarily require an advanced mathematics degree, but do require some knowledge base in statistics, logic and reasoning. 

“Boy, did I learn that I have to play catch up,” says Christ. She notes that Smith has had an open curriculum for about 35 years. In reality that means that many students who attend the college -- which has highly competitive admissions -- could get by without ever taking a math or analytic-based course.

“There are no careers where you don’t need to use quantitative reasoning anymore,” says Christ. To date, students have been encouraged to select a curriculum that includes quantitative reasoning courses -- classes ranging from calculus to the biology of breast cancer -- but there have been no requirements to do so.

Now, Christ says that the Smith is on the verge of change. Faculty members have been meeting for about a year regarding ways to create such a requirement, and a director of quantitative reasoning has recently been hired. A plan for a specific quantitative reasoning requirement is still crystallizing, but Christ is confident that the college will have one in the near future.

Not everyone at the traditional liberal arts school has embraced that reality. “The reason this discussion has been interesting at Smith is because we’ve been committed to an open curriculum for so long,” says Rob Dorit, an associate professor of biological sciences who is a member of the Smith College Committee on Mission and Priorities. “That’s really been part of our identity.”

Dorit says that the open curriculum has allowed for flexibility for some students, but has been an “escape from all math” for others, which he says is dangerous. He also says that some faculty members have been anxious about the impending changes, but believes that their concerns are misplaced.

“Every student is not going to be taking advanced calculus,” says Dorit. “The onus will be on all of us to engage students in what their interests are.” The professor notes that he has taught a first-year seminar course focused on the biology and chemistry of breast cancer that has not only proven popular with students, but also contains a lot of quantitative reasoning, involving incidence rates of cancers in various areas of the U.S.

Several quantitative reasoning experts say that Smith College is taking an important step, one that more and more institutions have made in recent years. The Association of American Colleges and Universities, too, recently began a movement to increase and support quantitative literacy, a theme identified by the in its 10-year campaign to redefine and promote liberal education.

“Simply put, there’s an extra burden on U.S. residents to understand vast amounts of data,” says Bernard Madison, a professor of mathematics, at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville. “There’s been an enormous increase in the amount of quantitative data people need to be able to understand.”

Madison says that all students, even those of the caliber at Smith, need more skills and should focus on reading news more often. He teaches a course at Arkansas called “Mathematical Reasoning in a Quantitative World” in which students read various newspaper and magazine articles that contain mathematical concepts to ponder, but they aren’t arranged in linear lessons, like in a math textbook. “It’s more like real life,” says Madison.

“I’m happy to see Smith pursue this,” adds Madison. “It gives the movement the kind of credibility it deserves.”

“I think it is a natural progression from a longer-term trend in lots of colleges -- not just liberal arts colleges -- to look at outcomes across the curriculum,” says Debra Humphries, a spokeswoman with the Association of American Colleges and Universities. “The first issue many institutions looked at was writing across the curriculum and, more recently, many have begun looking at quantitative reasoning across the curriculum.”

Some scholars have noted that there isn’t a clear consensus on what specific components should be part of a solid quantitative reasoning course. Steven Dunbar, a professor of mathematics at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, notes that there are ongoing discussions in academe regarding this question. “One faculty member might have a very different impression of what a quantitative reasoning course should look like,” says Dunbar.

At Smith, Dorit says that such questions will continue to play out. “We’re mindful that we’re at an important juncture,” he says. “We have no illusions that everyone will be doing graduate work in math.” He says that an English major could easily learn a lot of quantitative reasoning concepts in a linguistics course, by dissecting language patterns.

“It’s our responsibility to make the argument that this isn’t some capricious idea that the faculty hatched out,” adds Dorit. “I think getting it right is an experiment. There’s no Rosetta Stone for how to get it right.”


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