For a number of years now I have been developing an approach to mathematics problems that is realistic vis-a-vis the workplace--applied, open-ended, multistep, generally done in groups. Students present results in argument form, verbal or written, where results are documented and are related to the practical problem at hand.
Students who are taught in this way develop a generalized sense of accuracy of their calculations, so wildly wrong answers are rare. They never ask "What will we use this for?" In fact, they often volunteer their appreciation of mathematical applicability. To improve this practice, I would like to explore avenues of conversation with the world of work to develop projects that makes this method the norm and not just the interesting but isolated exception.
I often ask professionals to speak to students about their work and about their experience of getting to that particular line of work. I have been impressed over the years at what an impact those encounters can make on students. They create an image of possibilities that motivates and inspires many students.
The difficulty, of course, is one of resources. Who has the time? Who has the contacts? Ad hoc programs like "Women in Engineering" which bring professionals into the classroom to share their experiences are helpful, but more is needed. Perhaps an Internet connection linking students and professionals would be valuable.
Betty Hawkins is a member of the Department of Mathematics at Shoreline Community College in Seattle, Washington.