How Did She Graduate From High School?

In the last days of my tenure and a couple weeks before my retirement in Spring 2014, as the final exams were approaching, one of my students visited me in my office with a question about a problem we had done in class. The problem was this: If a machine can toss a coin 100,000 times per second and you want it to toss the coin 2.2×1019 times, how many seconds do you have to wait? She didn’t understand why we had divided 2.2×1019 by 100,000 to get the answer. In such cases, I tell my students to replace the large numbers by small ones, because the power of ten may be too abstract for them. I asked her, “if you can toss a coin two times per second, how many seconds does it take you to toss it ten times?” She said, “two divided by ten?” … Because of grade inflation – which is out of my or any concerned teacher’s control – she got a B in my course! (If I hadn’t inflated the grades, I would have had to fail at least 70% of the class, including this girl who was better than the bottom half of the class!)

This is a general-education course, whose prerequisite is the admission requirement to an American public university, i.e., allegedly high school algebra!

3 thoughts on “How Did She Graduate From High School?”

  1. It is funny but also makes you want to cry.
    I guess it is a combination of state schools having been transformed into nurseries for preventing teenagers being out on the streets doing nothing and the idea that everyone should go to university.
    I remember an old high school physics teacher that I had; he was an engineer and taught physics just as a hobby. He was a great teacher and an inspiration for me. Once he commented:
    “When I was a kid people graduating from high school were like doctors; today they barely know anything” That was 20 years ago and now is much worst.

    1. You are absolutely right Ariel, in that things are getting progressively worse. I taught at public universities for over thirty years and I could measure the yearly decline almost quantitatively. The problem is abundantly clear and I believe it is cultural. The solution, however, is elusive. Here in the US whenever there is a proposal for a budget cut, education is the first victim!

      We should not despair though. As educators, we should make our students at least aware of the importance of education, if nothing else. Hopefully, the future generations will value it more than the current one.

  2. I had a newly graduated University student working for me recently. He had a degree in Chemistry. However, when given a problem where he had to do several unit conversions and algebra to solve a problem, he could not do it even after he had seen the solution. How do you get a high school education, let alone a college degree in Chemistry, without being able to do simple unit conversions and algebra (i.e. three equations for three unknowns)? The worse part was, after many hours of training and several different example problems, he was still incapable of solving these types of problems.

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