Can Technology Do for Math Students What It Did for WWII Pilots?

Guest post written by Robert Sun, CEO of Suntex International. 

Seventy years ago, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt faced a massive challenge: how to quickly produce 100,000 competent pilots to fight in World War II. Early aviation schools were experiencing fatality rates as high as 25%. The question was, “Should the U.S. hire hundreds of new flight instructors? Or is there a better way to teach pilots to fly?”

The answer, as it turned out, was the latter. Edwin Albert Link Jr., son of an organ maker, was passionate about learning to fly. In the late 1920’s, he invented what he called a “pilot maker”—a simulator made of bellows, hoses and pumps that allowed novices to practice flying in a low-risk environment.

When World War II hit, the government purchased thousands of these devices, by then known as “Link Trainers.” By war’s end, more than 500,000 pilots had logged millions of practice hours in Link Trainers. The device, coupled with improved teaching methods, solved FDR’s dilemma.

Today, with our nation’s economic future in the balance, U.S. schools are faced with the task of producing millions of young people skilled in mathematics. The solution will not be found on the teaching side. There’s nothing wrong with the way the U.S. has taught math since the 1940’s. Generations of American children, well schooled in math, have put men on the moon and invented the integrated circuit chip, among thousands of other innovations.

What our children need is a better way to practice math. With the possible exception of breathing, there isn’t any skill that can be mastered without practice. The average toddler takes three thousand steps and falls more than eighteen times a day before becoming proficient at walking. Why should math be the outlier?

The reason many nations outperform the U.S. in math education is because practice is embedded in their cultures. The Chinese word for learning/study is made up of two characters: the first stands for “accumulation of knowledge” and the second character stands for “constant practice, as in little birds learning to fly.”

During the past decade, our political and business leaders have fretted over how to boost our children’s math skills in order to maintain our nation’s competitive strength. The response from the educational establishment remains focused primarily on teaching as the solution.

Instead, shouldn’t we be asking ourselves, “Is there a better way to learn this complex skill?” As Edwin Link correctly reasoned in the 20th Century—and as we must once again realize in the 21st—systemized, self-directed practice utilizing the latest technology is the answer.

Technology now enables us to offer the equivalent of the Link Trainer for mathematics education. If we embrace this approach, we can overcome our “practice gap” and solve one of our nation’s most important learning challenges.

Robert Sun

Robert Sun

ROBERT SUN is the CEO of Suntex International and inventor of First In Math, an online program designed for energizing every child to learn, love and live mathematics.