Written: April 1 (!), 2016
Ten years ago, eminent Penn math researcher and educator, Dennis DeTurck, spoke very wisely against the premature study of fractions in elementary school, and suggested that decimals could do just as well. I was very pleased to find out that his suggestion was recently recommended, and extended to K-16, by President Obama's advisory education committee.
Many teachers and professors would obviously be shocked and disgusted at this revolutionary reform, claiming that rational numbers are so fundamental. Nonsense! Decimals do a much better job, as Dennis pointed out so eloquently. Besides, using decimals, combined with our age of big data, one can still operate with fractions, without the obsolete algorithms for adding fractions by finding the least common denominator.
The STEM Education committee is constructing a data base of fractions, where one can easily obtain the decimal representation, to 100 digits, of any fraction with denominators up to a million, and vice versa. For example, if you you want to add up, say 4/11 and 8/17, look up their decimal representation
Tell your calculator to add them up
and then use the search facility of the above website to convert the above decimal to a fraction and get 156/187, much faster, and less painful, than executing the obsolete school algorithm.
So even in the unlikely event that you would have to add two fractions, and get the "exact" answer as another fraction, it could be done much easier, and more efficiently, only using decimals.
But why stop with numerical fractions?! Our poor calculus 2 students have a very hard time with integrating rational functions by first decomposing them into "partial fractions" (and they usually mess up), and then integrating each piece, getting often baroque "explicit" answers featuring natural logs, arctans and whatnot. How passé. Just convert everything to power series, using, say, the taylor command in Maple, and integrate term by term. Also if you are only interested in adding rational functions, the analogous operation can be done with a data base of Taylor expansion for every rational function that may show up.
There are so many other cases where "big data" makes at least ninety-five percent of the current curriculum obsolete, and all one needs is the ability to type and copy-and-paste to a website.
Let's hope that the innovative and brave Obama STEM committee will also adopt my new suggestions. My only worry is that President Trump, being a conservative, will revert this decision, and our poor students would, once again, be tortured by fractions.