In a post she wrote for the blog on March 10, 2014 (“Does our approach to teaching math fail even the smartest kids?”) Carol Lloyd notes that according to a study conducted by UCLA, as many as 60% of all college students who start a STEM major in college drop out.

That is happening, she postulates, because students lack the math skills that support STEM majors. Why do those students lack those skills? She believes it is because students are not taught the right math skills in high school. Those students, she believes, are taught to memorize and apply algorithms instead of learning to use math to solve real-world problems. Learning to solve problems using math, she believes, is more engaging and prepares students to excel in STEM programs in college.

Does Phillips Exeter Have an Answer?

Phillips Exeter Academy, the world-renowned private high school located in Exeter, New Hampshire, has spent years developing a unique approach to teaching mathematics. Every math learning assignment is structured as a problem, explained in words, for students to solve.

Fortunately, Exeter has shared its mathematical program online. Here are some examples of math problems that Exeter students try to reason their way through and solve.

Sample Exeter Problem

To buy a ticket for a weekly state lottery, a person selects 6 integers from 1 to 36, the order not being important. There are 1947792 such combinations of six digits. Alex and nine friends want to win the lottery by buying every possible ticket (all 1947792 combinations), and plan to spend 16 hours a day doing it. Assume that each person buys one ticket every five seconds. What do you think of this plan? Can the project be completed within a week?

Sample Exeter Problem

Pick a number, add 5 and multiply the result by 4. Add another 5 and multiply the result by 4 again. Subtract 100 from your result and divide your answer by 8. How does your answer compare to the original number? You may need to do a couple of examples like this until you see the pattern. Use a variable for the chosen number and show how the pattern holds for any number.

Sample Exeter Problem

Coffee beans lose 12.5% of their weight during roasting. In order to obtain 252 kg of roasted coffee beans, how many kg of unroasted beans must be used?

And One More Exeter Problem

Several first-year students were meeting in a room. After 45 of them left, the room was 5/8 as full as it was initially. How many students were in the room at the start of the meeting?

What Is Your Experience with High School Math Students?

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