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TV REVIEW : ‘Math . . . Who Needs It?’: We Do

“Math . . . who needs it?” A good question, often heard on the lips of school-age children. A PBS special, cleverly titled “Math . . . Who Needs It?” (tonight at 7:30 on KCET Channel 28, at 8 on KPBS Channel 15 and KVCR Channel 24, and Thursday at 8 p.m. on KOCE Channel 50) attempts to answer the query in a way that should intrigue students and their parents.

The program features renowned former Garfield High School math teacher Jaime Escalante (now an instructor in Sacramento) teaching and inspiring his students, intercut with segments showing the practical applications of math in the real world, and with comments about math by celebrities including Bill Cosby, Dizzy Gillespie, Joe Piscopo, Teri Garr and Paul Rodriguez.

Inherent in the main question is another: What’s in it for me? The answer, of course, is found in the world outside the classroom, and the program shows how math is needed to create skateboards, basketball shoes, race cars and robotics for the space program. A sound engineer for Billy Joel explains why math is necessary in his job; Gillespie shows how math is basic to music. Math, it seems, is everywhere.

Surely, we are getting the idea now. And just to be certain, in the show’s best moments, we get to spend some time in Escalante’s classroom at Garfield as he introduces his students to the enjoyment of math (the teacher adds a column of numbers called out by his students in mere seconds) and challenges them to make something of their lives (a sign in the classroom: “Determination, Discipline, Hard Work--the way to success”).

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Math would be oh, so much easier if we all had teachers like Escalante.


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