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me + math

sandokai asked: "What was it like for you doing math as you were growing up-- like what was your relationship with math?"

Growing up I really liked patterns. Mosaics, triangles, building tiny houses out of toothpicks. Dad taught me how to count in different bases of numbers - base two, base eight, I thought that was so cool.

I did not consider myself to be good at math. We had those timed multiplication table tests in elementary school - I stunk. Full honesty, even today if you randomly come up to me and ask what's 8 times 5 there's a chance I will hesitate. Then say 35. Then say 40. Then apologize.

In seventh grade they split us up and some kids would get to take pre-algebra. I was not one of those kids. I was in the average math class. I took pre-algebra as an eighth grader if memory serves, then algebra as a freshman.

My parents thought I was smart and wondered if they should push me to get into a higher math class, but then had an interesting conversation with a neighbor/teacher person. She basically told them that if I took algebra as a freshman, then I'd take geometry, algebra 2, pre-calculus, and then take calc I my first semester of college. That was more than good enough, a lot of college kids have to take college algebra or even remedial math. Those advanced kids were lining up to take calc 2 their first semester of college - not a great idea, since calc 2 is a class that many people agree is the toughest math out there. Some of them see this coming and decide not to take calculus in high school, just take a year off math. Big mistake. Never take a year off math, she said, even if you're ahead.

Besides, math is one of those things that can drive you crazy if you stretch yourself beyond what you're ready for. If you think you're smart enough for advanced class, why not just set back and get As in the non-advanced class? Build some confidence.

That's what I did and that's what worked out. Even though I never liked math before, my sophomore year I realized I LOVED geometry. It was like a whole different world of math! Like learning that spinach quiche and french silk chocolate are both kids of pie. Geometry and proofs were poetic. And I saw myself suddenly getting something that not all the kids around me were getting, I suddenly felt like I was special and had a lobe for something.

In algebra 2 I had a very good teacher who not everybody liked, she came off harsh sometimes, but she explained things in ways I could understand. I suddenly understood notation for logarithms and then logarithms snapped for me, which was a light bulb because I didn't know that my struggles had been about the notation, I thought I just couldn't wrap my brain around how the numbers worked. Once I saw it reframed, I realized again that I could do this. For a little bit I almost thought about being a math major, but the jobs didn't seem all that interesting, I wasn't sure what math majors do.

I liked pre-calc, went to college and took calculus, math started getting harder and more "out there" but by now I kinda understood how I learned and the process of just pausing to ask "What's step 1?" to see how to solve problems. I had to take up to calc II for my tech degree but also took calc III just for fun because I had the textbook and it would get me a math minor. For my masters I had to take differential equations. I needed a study group, but got through in the end.

There's this discussion we have in engineering outreach about math perceptions. Kids think that you have to be a math genius to be an engineer, so at the ripe age of like, 11, they decide they're not qualified. It's sad because at that age you really haven't seen all the kinds of math in the world. You might take to different kinds differently! And honestly, I really do not use much math as an engineer. It's kind of a running joke. It's a little sad. One day a guy in our group got to use trigonometry to figure out a radar reflection angle thing and he bragged about it and we all gathered around like "What! You got to use trig!" We were all excited for him and wanted to hear all about it, even though trig is 10th grade high school math... and here we'd all taken dif eq?

My dad said that an engineering degree just proves that you're "educable" - doesn't actually serve as the basis of the knowledge to do your job. I believe now, after hiring college students, that the degree serves to demonstrate your commitment. People spend their whole lives designing airplanes, you're not going to understand this whole product, and even more important the huge people organization and processes to get it done, in three months. We're going to train you for years. If we're going to invest in training you, we want to know that you intend to work in this field for at least 5 years, if not 40. It's not just a fun thing you're trying. If you had the patience to earn a four year degree in engineering, that's a good sign.

So you don't have to love math to be an engineer, you have to get through it, hopefully you find some patterns and methods you enjoy, but it's like latin, teaches you how things go together and some interesting things to think about.

I read a teacher explain that we needed to learn math for the beautiful sake of it, and I agree. Kids ask when they'll use it, we say "to balance your checkbook!" what a terrible answer. That's like telling kids that they should study art in case they have to paint a house someday. It's a luxury to get to think about everything we have in math, and that's what I appreciated in the end.

I also told Josie, who got a math award in Kindergarten, that math was important because it could prove you were smart. And if people think you're smart, you get to work with them on the coolest projects. That's the story of my life right there, starting with geometry and ending with a fleet of airplanes that fly.

Posts from This Journal by “math” Tag


( 16 comments — Leave a comment )
May. 19th, 2016 11:28 am (UTC)
Wow, this was a great question!

I also never learned my times tables. In 5th grade my teacher told my mother I wasn't good at math. She replied, "this is not math. This is arithmetic." I heard this story many years later long after my schooling (my mother didn't want me to ever hear that the teacher had told me I wasn't good at math.) As a result of never learning my times tables, I am great at mental math (lots of tricks I figured out to come up with the answer anyway.) I see a lot of these tricks now being taught in common core.

I, too, did not get put into the advanced class. But my mom got me into the advanced class anyway when I was in 8th grade. It was a struggle... I think that was my first B. I also ended up learning trig in 8th grade (from the same teacher) because in shop class I needed to know it to build a magazine rack. So my shop teacher had me go ask the math teacher. So I ended up learning some geometry even earlier than even the advanced track kids.

Since I was on the advanced track I took geometry in 9th grade. I also loooved geometry and did great in it. I took AP calculus B/C (which is the harder of the two AP exams offered- my school didn't offer A/B) my senior year in high school. It was kind of a disaster. I met my first boyfriend in the class and got a little side-tracked by sex, so I'm not sure if the problem was the math or that, haha. I got a 2.

In college I decided to take calculus I again, because I didn't do so well the first time, but decided to take honors, because it was repeat, which was all proofs. Also a disaster.

Anyway, in the end I took my GREs and got a 780 in maths. Which got me into grad school. Which was a disaster!

In the end, I think I always considered myself "bad" at math, but I think it was because my ranking in math was lower than it was than all my other subjects. Compared to everyone, I was good at math. Compared to my other subjects, I was bad at math. Everyone in high school SUPER surprised when I did science in university and I bet they'd be extra super surprised I ended up in programming after all that.

Edited at 2016-05-19 12:02 pm (UTC)
May. 20th, 2016 01:48 pm (UTC)
"this is not math. This is arithmetic." - seriously, people need to make the distinction!
May. 19th, 2016 11:46 am (UTC)
My mother is a secondary school maths teacher, and she offers private tuition in her home. I grew up listening to her teaching all sorts of maths, and I have been known to claim that maths is my first language (I sucked at English at school...). My school maths experience was mostly of being terrifically bored because I was always ahead of the class, until I was about 17 and struggling with differential equations; I think I failed to learn the essential skill of "learning things that I find hard" on account of never finding anything hard at the age I might have learned it at, or maybe I fail at having the arsedness to do hard things - I passed my degree by the narrowest of margins, but now I work in IT, doing things I've always found easy.
May. 19th, 2016 01:33 pm (UTC)
Math is an entry point for a vast range of fields. My major argument for taking as much math as you can at younger ages is just one of keeping your options open.

And of other odd, math-related skills, I was once in Athens and realized I could read the street signs because of so many years of math (and related) classes that I knew the Greek alphabet.
May. 19th, 2016 02:02 pm (UTC)
My fascination with math was from my aunt's scientific calculator. Press sin repeatedly and it'll eventually hit zero. Hit ln repeatedly and it goes down to a negative number and breaks.
May. 19th, 2016 02:31 pm (UTC)
I miss Math. I absolutely loved it. Instead of PE they put me in a high school algebra class in 8th grade. I made a perfect 100 and pissed off the older kids. They all asked for my help. lol. I took Geometry, Trigonometry, Calculus, Algebra 1 and 2...I miss it! I found crazy math problems at home not for a grade but for the challenge. I wish I could go back to school.
May. 19th, 2016 04:09 pm (UTC)
I never learned my times tables until college. I had a math teacher in third grade who thought I was the biggest idiot on the planet and offered me no help or support and after that I was just "bad at math." My sophomore year of college I had an AMAZING math professor, within a semester of weekly tutoring I was able to take calculus. I found it astonishing that all those years I'd had potential and just been written off. :(
May. 19th, 2016 04:54 pm (UTC)
Also math is complex. Like I got through calculus 2 and I still have to sometimes "Add up" to do my times tables (like "Oh well 8X5 is 40 so add another 8 to get 8X6"). I don't think I'll ever have them memorized.
May. 19th, 2016 04:23 pm (UTC)
My fifth grade teacher--who loved math and always played favorites based on which students performed well in math--decided I was unteachable, and also predicted I would be a single teenage mother. Seven years later, I was diagnosed with dyscalculia. To this day, I have no confidence in myself when it comes to math.

Edited at 2016-05-19 04:24 pm (UTC)
May. 19th, 2016 04:53 pm (UTC)
So interesting! I hadn't thought about the downsides of advanced math like that. I was put in advanced math-- my father said I should become an engineer. But because I was always at the edge of what challenged me, I hated math. I took Calculus 2 my first semester of college and I still have emotional-PTSD from it ;)

"we needed to learn math for the beautiful sake of it," that is true too-- so nice.

May. 20th, 2016 04:44 pm (UTC)
Funny, my dad once told me more or less the same thing.

Whether I was good or bad in math at school heavily depended on the teacher I was having. I was very lucky that my class got a new math teacher after first year in high-school, I think I wouldn't have gone for an engineering degree with a barely pass in math.
(with the new teacher, I had straight As, with the old one it was a close pass...)
May. 21st, 2016 05:22 am (UTC)
Math is a beautiful and wonderful thing!

That was a great question, and I loved your answer.

btw, happy birthday. :)
May. 21st, 2016 09:53 pm (UTC)
I love your reason why maths is important.

The Germans (and most other western Europeans) were still building crude houses while the Greeks were building amazing temples. Why? Because the Greeks could do maths. Our word Mathematics comes from ancient Greek.
May. 21st, 2016 11:08 pm (UTC)
"Why do I need to learn math?"

Because when you are a frazzled grocery store cashier and someone comes up with a .9lb package of salmon on sale at $6.99/lb, but the last bit of the label with the total price was ripped off or smudged, do you really want them going all the way back to the meat department to have them weigh it again back there and print a new label?

This was a true story. I pulled out my phone and ran the calculation, told the cashier the sum, and when my bf came back from the meat counter with the same total, he looked at me like I was a witch or something 8D

and just being able to see patterns and think 'well, what if we put another one in, how would that change it?' and being able to predict the result without having to build it all over again for every iteration you wanted to check.
May. 24th, 2016 03:52 pm (UTC)
<3 love this post and love all the responses to it too

I'd add to what your neighbor said, *most* students should take calc I again in college even if they tested out of it; it's a lot harder in college, and people fail in calc II. they should just go for the refresher. and if nothing else it's an easy A if you don't actually need it. (but be humble about it too srsly, freshman, you don't know jack even if you think you do. ahem.)

:) My $0.02 from the other side.

I never got to take calc in HS, I struggled like hell in college. I think I finally "caught up" with everyone in partial diff eqs.
( 16 comments — Leave a comment )

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