The best way to teach maths . . . probably

8th March 1996 at 00:00
A new mathematics curriculum developed at the Harvard University Medical School has students figuring out for themselves the odds against winning the state lottery, writes Jon Marcus. In their science classes, they are learning about the physical consequences of abusing drugs and alcohol.

"We're not taking a puritanical approach to these things," said Robert Calavrese, superintendent of the Billerica, Massachusetts, school district, where the idea is being tested. "We're not saying, 'Never gamble and don't ever take a drop of alcohol'. We're just saying people ought to know the outcome of their actions."

Besides, said Dr Calavrese, reciting the anti-drug appeal "Just Say No" to adolescents probably has precisely the opposite effect.

"We're trying to appeal to their intellect, and maybe by having this kind of background and know-ledge, the kids will be able to understand why they should say no," he said.

The curriculum is being introduced in the coming weeks to 13-year-old seventh-graders in the district, which has 6,300 students from various income levels.

In one maths exercise, the students are to rank events in order of their probability, from dying in a car accident to winning the lottery. In the United States, most lotteries are run by states or groups of states, and the odds of winning the six-number daily lottery in Massachusetts are about one in 12.3 million; Americans are almost eight times more likely to be struck and killed by lightning.

Young people interviewed in the town had little reaction to the concept, which has yet to show up in their classes. But they acknowledged that some of their peers have gambled.

Although it is illegal for people under-18s to take part in lotteries, an estimated 13 per cent of American high-school students do so. About Pounds 12.4 million was spent on lottery tickets last year in Billerica, a town with a population of only 38,000.

John Katsoulis, who is in charge of implementing the curriculum, said: "We're trying to get children to understand, from an intellectual point of view, the dangers of abuse - and gambling is one kind of abuse, as are drugs and alcohol."

Curriculum planners also think that giving students information about how maths and science might affect them will augment their interest in the subjects.

"Any time you can make the subject more relevant to the adolescent's life, the adolescent is going to learn," said Dr Calavrese.

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