Several dozen education and business leaders, and a handful of students, gathered in an auditorium at Harding High School in St. Paul one morning last month. It was the last of 13 forums for STEM -- science, technology, engineering and math -- a statewide campaign to encourage kids to consider careers in these fields.
Anita Hall, an engineer at General Mills, showed the group the secret to making microwave popcorn pop, and said she loves her job.
"It's even actually a bit of a misnomer for me to say I work there, because actually what I do is I play there, and they pay me for it," Hall said.
Hall told the students in the auditorium that they don't have to love math to be an engineer, but they do have to take a lot of math classes.
Hall's enthusiasm wasn't exactly contagious. One student began nodding off as the presentations continued, and the others said afterwards that it's hard to get excited about math.
"It's always been my worst subject," said Shea Reyes, a Harding senior.
Reyes is taking algebra this year. He said he took pre-algebra in junior high, and then skipped over algebra to geometry, which makes algebra even more of a challenge for him now. Reyes said if math classes included more hands-on activities, they would be more interesting.
"When you're sitting in the classroom just doing problems, a lot of times I think kids get bored, because they don't see the practical uses for it," Reyes said. "They say, 'When am I ever going to use this?"
State Education Commissioner Alice Seagren wants students to see the practical uses for math. She tells students that they must take more math and science courses to prepare for a growing number of technology jobs, and to compete with highly-trained workers from other countries.
"When you take math, when you take science, you are really starting to learn analytical skills. You're learning problem-solving skills," Seagren said. "And no matter what you do for the rest of your life, you will be able to use those skills and apply them anywhere you go."
Seagren isn't daunted by the test scores released last month showing that many Minnesota high school students haven't mastered those problem-solving skills.
The results of a new test, the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments II, showed less than one-third of 11th graders did well enough on the test to be considered proficient in math. And when asked to explain their reasoning, students left about one-third of the answers blank.
"It was a long, difficult test. That's just generally what I heard," said Marty Gaslin, a high school math teacher who's helping to revise the new math standards that the MCA-IIs are based on.
Gaslin said the new test is longer than the previous version, and asks students to do more than solve equations.
"There's more reading, there's more explanation, the constructed responses on the MCA are the ones that really ask students to explain their work, and they're specific as to what types of things they want the kids to write," Gaslin said.
Because of the rigorous tests, many Minnesota schools didn't meet student achievement goals this year, including Edina High School. Students at the nationally-ranked school had good test scores overall, but two sub-groups, African-American students and low-income students, didn't make "adequate yearly progress."
Edina High School teacher Lonni Skrentner said on the day the test scores were released, teachers seemed resigned to the news.
"Do you feel bad? Yes," Skrentner said. "I watched our math teachers that morning in that faculty meeting. They were not their normal ebullient selves, let's put it that way. They knew that once again, they were going to be ordered back to the drawing board."
Skrentner said it's hard for teachers to prepare students for state standards, when the state keeps changing the test.
Commissioner Seagren said there are no plans to change the test any time soon, although the math standards will be tweaked. Seagren said the MCA II is a baseline test, and she expects scores to improve over time. She said efforts like STEM and new math requirements should better prepare students to do well in math.