Spacefem (spacefem) wrote,

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.
Tags: math, questions meme

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