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The Engineer Who Hated Math

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Mathematics

Mathematics (Photo credit: Terriko)

As an engineer, I had what most would consider a ridiculous amount of math in college.  Here’s the thing — I hated every math class I ever had, except maybe high school algebra.  Why?  I found them fairly boring and disconnected with the real world (especially proofs). Obviously math is very important to engineering, and to daily life for just about everyone.  But I think there is a serious problem with how we teach math in schools — elementary, secondary, college, etc.

Math Fraud

The way math is taught in schools makes it seem disconnected and fake. If two cars are speeding towards each other at different speeds, when will they get to point in the middle — no one really cares.  The math behind this type of problem is important, but the way we teach it makes it seem useless (especially to kids who can’t drive yet). Even worse is the obtuse way in which math story problems are often worded — like they’re trying to trick you.  So you spend most of your time trying to figure out what the hell they mean before you can even get to the math.  This  fraudulent to math because it makes it seem more difficult than it has to be — and makes math seem disconnected from the real world.

Math in Science was Awesome

In high school, I ended up learning some math in my Physics class before it was covered in my Calculus course.  We needed the math to do our labs and experiments.  And in this case, learning the math was very interesting and seemed easy.  Why?  Because it was applied to a specific situation where you could see it in action.  The same was true of even higher math that I used in my college Physics course on relativity — which used (hated by me) proofs.  Even in the abstract world of proofs, the math in the science class was tied to something specific and real. Beyond silly story problems that ask you to figure out how fast watermelons travel in a speeding car, math in science makes sense because it’s not faked.

Abstract Thinking Can Be Difficult

One of the difficulties with math is that it really is fairly abstract. Even if you have a number of objects that you are counting, the logic and idea behind a number is abstract. The way we teach math in school is almost entirely abstract. Students have to wrap their minds around abstract ideas and then try to apply them to artificial problems. There has been some work to use real items like counting beads in Montessori practice to try to make math more concrete.  But, in general, most math teaching and learning remains very abstract, which makes it seem more difficult than it has to be.

Make Math Applied, Concrete & Integrated

I don’t believe that math has to be boring or hated in school.  When I’m doing math in an applied setting like science or engineering, it’s (almost) fun — it becomes a useful tool to solve a real problem.  I think we need to consider changing the way we teach separate subjects in school and instead use integration to make every subject more interesting (including arts, language, history, etc.). While this would require more teamwork from teachers (who tend to be subject matter experts), and a change in the way we structure evaluations, it could make learning every subject, including math, more exciting and fun. This, in turn, could make all STEM careers, including those heavy in math, more accessible.

These are just my experiences and ideas, feel free to share your own in the comments below.

 

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Nurturing Leadership in STEM Professionals

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Science World

Science World (Photo credit: danieldoan)

The education and training required for most STEM professionals can be quite high.  And many STEM professionals work in academic or research institutions which have quite different cultures and environments than corporate organizations. So it would go to reason that the leadership challenges that many STEM professionals face are different than managers in the corporate world.  There’s a good article over on Federal News Radio about things to consider when nurturing leadership in STEM professionals:

Trying to hire a truly world class physicist who may be one of a handful of people on the planet who can do what s/he does is hard enough. Providing leadership to such a scientist and helping him/her become a more effective leader is even harder. NRL found it was a challenge just to find staff who were interested in taking on leadership roles. Many of their key researchers were so focused on doing good science that being a manager was the last thing they wanted to do. Supporting STEM leaders: 5 things we need to do by Jeff Neal

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“Boy” toys vs. “Girl” toys – Why do we have to label?

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the pink aisle (again)

the pink aisle (again) (Photo credit: zharth)

There has been a lot of talk about “boy” vs “girl” toys lately — from the Huffington post article about the 1981 Lego ad to the story behind the stereotype of video games being for boys. Elly Vila Dominicis recently posted about “girl” vs “boy” toys at McDonalds:

Some days, I was curious, or I just didn’t feel like pretending, so we’d ask for a girl toy. This usually ended in disappointment. We’d open the bag excitedly, only to find ourselves staring deeply into the dead eyes of a doll with crispy blonde hair. The dolls were ignored or discarded almost immediately, but weeks later I‘d feel a pinch on my butt from a hard, pointy doll arm jutting from between the couch cushions — a painful reminder of who I was expected to be. I’m a Girl and I want the Boy Toy by Elly Villa Dominicis

Looking back on the McDonalds toys I used to get from Happy meals, I always asked for a “boy” toy as well.  Except when they were out of “boy” toys (because they were cooler) or the one time they told me I couldn’t have it because I was a girl (what?!??).

I think the real question comes down to: why do we have to label?  Why are some toys for boys and some games for girls? Marketing has created a self-perpetuating cycle where games and toys that are labeled and colored in certain ways appeal to a certain audience. We’ve created an infinite catch-22.

Obviously it’s more than changing the coloring and package design. Making a toy kitchen set in reds and blues doesn’t mean that there may be more girls who are interested in it than boys.  But it does change the equation in terms of expectations.

We’re social creatures that look to our friends and family for clues as to how we fit in.  Instead of trying to fit everyone into the same mold, maybe it would be more worthwhile to be open to diversity.  The human race would stagnate if everyone looked and thought the same — and life sure would be boring.

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