Billionaire Aims To Solve A Math Problem

couric, math for america
couric, math for america
CBS
Can America compete with China and India when fewer and fewer of our students graduate with math, science and engineering degrees? Jim Simons sure doesn't think so — and if he's worried about it, you probably should be, too, CBS Evening News anchor Katie Couric reports.

"We have an economy that's dependent on technology, and we don't have a domestic workforce who's prepared," Simons says. "Fewer and fewer people who know math and science, teach math and science."

Simons likes his job as head of a hedge fund called Renaissance Technologies. The world-renowned mathematician-turned-college-professor-turned-billionaire businessman is still passionate about numbers.

To pass the time, Simons has been working on a math problem over the past couple of years.

"It takes a couple of years to solve a good problem," he says.

If he hasn't figured out how to solve that problem, he does think he's got the equation for getting more math teachers into New York City public schools: Find college graduates who love math, pay for them to get their master's degrees — and in addition to their regular salaries, pay them as much as $20,000 more a year.

"We don't want volunteers. We want people who will be committed to be a professional in this field and stay there," Simons says. "A $20,000 bump is not all that much money — but on the other hand, it's meaningful, and it makes people feel recognized."

Simons' organization is called Math For America and he put up almost $50 million of his own money to start it back in 2004. The goal is to get 400 highly qualified math teachers in the classroom by 2009.

"I've made a lot of money and had a very interesting life, so for me, to make a modest contribution of time and money to try to get things turned around doesn't seem very surprising," Simons says.

He says his organization is bringing in 50 people a year to become teachers. "These are guys who graduated from MIT and Harvard," Simons says, adding that half are women.

Melanie Smith is one of those women. While most of her friends from Columbia University pursued careers in finance, Melanie, who majored in math, started teaching.

"I really wanted to do something when I graduated that had a tangible effect on where our country was going, and I felt teaching was the most powerful way to do that," Smith says.

Simons says that "without question" if something isn't done, the United States will lose its position in the global economy "because it's the intellectual power of America that gives us the potential to stay in front.

"At a certain point, we will not be able to maintain our innovative edge in an increasingly scientific and technological world," Simons adds. "And we'll be left behind."

Not if Simons has his way. He says we can stay on top if we invest in American brainpower by hiring teachers who can ignite the imaginations of the next generation of math lovers.