Finding the Next Einstein

Why smart is relative

It's the Age of Big Data: That's Why Math Counts!

These are the students who will help invent our future

Brad Pitt Jonah Hill Moneyball
Photo courtesy Columbia Pictures
Steve Lohr of the New York Times recently asked the following questions: "GOOD with numbers? Fascinated by data?"  His answer: "The sound you hear is opportunity knocking."

He's right.  According to a report by the McKinsey Global Institute, America needs 140,000 to 190,000 more workers with what they are calling "deep analytical expertise."  In other words, they need people who are really good at math-people who can find patterns in the flood of data that is becoming freely available just about everywhere you look.

As Gary King of Harvard points out: "It's a revolution.  We're really just getting under way.  But the march of quantification, made possible by enormous new sources of data, will sweep through academia, business and government.  There is no area that is going to be untouched."

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Which means that math isn't just for mathematics, physics, or engineering, it's for just about everything.

With movies like Moneyball, where characters played by Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill create a winning baseball team by simply using the objective power of mathematics and statistics, perhaps the general public is beginning to understand the importance of math in so many different areas.  Andrew Gelman of Columbia University says that "The culture has changed.  There is this idea that numbers and statistics are interesting and fun.  It's cool now."

Maybe the culture is changing, but the age of big data raises the following question: Where exactly are those 140,000 to 190,000 mathematical analysts going to come from?

One interpretation of "deep analytical expertise" is simply extremely high mathematical ability.  So the people who are most likely going to fill those jobs will probably be students who excel at mathematics.

And here is another question: What are we doing in America to develop the kind of mathematical talent that we need in the future?

One program that is helping develop mathematical talent for our future is MATHCOUNTS which inspires hundreds of thousands of U.S. middle school mathematics students with both fun and challenging math programs.  Director Lou DiGioia says that the program is "all about getting kids excited about math."

The MATHCOUNTS competition program showcases the very best and brightest math students of our country as they compete head to head to gain the honor of becoming the national champion, which you can see for yourself in this video:

It is programs like this that are essential for the future of America in the age of big data.  However, I'm not so sure that Andrew Gelman is right that numbers and statistics are cool now in every segment of society.  In fact, I think that our mathematics performance in international comparisons would suggest that math has taken a backseat to many other societal pursuits.

We are drowning in data.  And I think our future depends on helping students at every segment of society to find beauty and value in mathematics.  But we also need to help society as a whole begin to understand that MATH COUNTS.  Then, and only then, will society provide the support for developing the talent of the very best and brightest of our country.

After all, these are the kids who are going to help invent our future. Let's make sure that we help them.

© 2012 by Jonathan Wai

You can follow me on Twitter, Facebook, or G+. For more of Finding the Next Einstein: Why Smart is Relative go here.

Jonathan Wai, Ph.D., is a psychologist, writer, and research scientist at Duke University.

 
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