Barbie is Wrong; Math is Cool!

6 years ago

I'm not supposed to like math right? I'm a girl and according to Barbie math class is tough. Do you remember when you learned that two plus two equals four? I do. I also remember the moment I learned to count by twos and fives and tens. I remember learning how to multiply and divide. You know why I remembered doing it?

It was a game.

It was a puzzle and as soon as you knew that two plus two equaled four, you had the skills to figure out so many puzzles. I was reminded of how much I like math after finding one of Vi Hart's videos on the Internet a few weeks ago. I shared it with my friends who shared it with theirs friends, and everyone thought the video was really cool. What could this video possibly be about? Using math theory to doodle elephants going across a page in math class. Math is cool.

Vi Hart was recently profiled in the New York Times about how her videos make fun. Math is not stuffy. It's not just for me. Not only are Vi's videos making math fun but they are attracting young girls.

She is also happy that, unlike in her early efforts, which drew an audience typical of mathematics research — older and male, mostly — the biggest demographic for her new videos, at least among registered users, are teenage girls.

“I just think that’s really awesome,” she said, “because you’ve got girls in middle school and high school who are suddenly enjoy mathematics and enjoying being a little nerdy and smart, and we need that.”

I sometimes feel like I'm a lost girl of math. I think that at one point I had the potential to be a total math geek. I remember sometime early in the first grade, it must have been about the first week, we got sent home with our math workbooks and an assignment due for the next day. I ignored the assignment. That's not to say I didn't do it, but I did it and more. I finished the whole workbook. I kind of figured there would just be more. I mean, they were just like games right? The next my teacher looked at what I had done, told me what I had done was wrong and that she didn't know what she was supposed to do with me for math for the next year since I had done everything. So much for my game.

The truth is that I spent a long time thinking that I wasn't very good at math. I didn't struggle with math the way that some of my classmates did, but my tests scores, while fine, didn't show any type of excellence. I remember escorting my mother to a parent-teacher night in junior high and my then math teacher told her that my math scores were not good enough, my average should be higher and that I was lazy. My mother was less than impressed with this teacher, but his words stuck with me.

I went on thinking that I was a bad, and now lazy, math student. In the ninth grade my new math teacher, Mrs. M, provided me with a gift. I didn't get it until it was time to select classes for the next year. She asked if I had signed up for the accelerated math class, a new option. She was expecting confirmation, but I said that I hadn't been planning on it because I didn't think I was good enough. She was shocked. I told her that my test scores and average weren't good enough. I said I wasn't very good at math.

She looked me in the eye said, "Karen, you are not bad at math. The problem is that you learn the concepts in the first lesson. You do the work and then while the rest of the class works on it, you spend a week staring at the wall. By the time we get around to testing you've forgotten what you know. You are not bad, you are bored. Take the class."

So I did. It was, in my opinion, the best math class ever, and I was sad that they only offered it the one year. I met up with the teacher of that class, Mr. M (yet another new math teacher and no relation to Mrs. M), a few years after high school and he said he had never had a class like us before or since. He said we made his job too easy. He'd show us the "proper" way to do a new concept, ie. the way he was supposed to teach it. Then he'd show us alternate ways of doing it. We almost always chose the alternate way of figuring out problems because they were more fun.

He'd show us how to do a few problems, answer any of our questions and then we told him to sit down, shut up and leave us alone unless we had questions. He let us lead the class. We did the work, we did it faster than any of his other classes had, so he didn't care if a student read a novel in class instead of doing a page of math problems from time to time. (I have to say that I did not push this too hard, the other students looked at me like I was nuts when I read in math class.)

When I left high school, my love affair with math ended, academically specking. When I went off to university I went into the arts, but I initially took the odd science class. It was in calculus that I ran into my biggest problem. I can't teach myself math. I've tried. We had a few extra textbooks lying around our house as a kid, and I tried to teach myself various things without success. If I had someone to teach it to me I was fine but if not? It was beyond me. That was calculus for me. The professor really wasn't interested in teaching. She wanted to show examples and didn't answer any questions in class. As far as she was concerned that's why we had tutorial sessions. The tutorial sessions were great in theory and the Russian graduate student who ran them tried really hard to help. Unfortunately his English (and our Russian) was too poor for any of us to effectively communicate. I bombed.

But just because I stopped taking math classes didn't mean I stopped using math. I used it in history when I looked at demographics and statistics. I used it in archaeological methods when figuring out how many people could have survived on the animals bones found in a midden. I used it each year when I got my student loan money and had to figure out how much (or more accurately, how little) I had to spend on food.

I still take a certain amount of glee in playing with numbers. Whether it's making a budget (I hate following them, love making them), or knitters math, or playing with fractions as I increase or decrease the size of a recipe. I do math every day. My kitchen math gets a further workout as I, like many Canadians, jump back and forth between metric and imperial measurements, often in a single recipe.

I use it recreationally. Origami, which I first remember doing in first grade, is math. While I do neither, I find crochet math and quilter's math fascinating. I often finish my day by doing sudoku or logic puzzles.

Math is everywhere and it's pretty freaking cool. I only wish that someone like Vi Hart had been around when I was younger. If nothing else I might have been able to explain how by making squiggly doodles in class I was actually doing math.

Contributing Editor Karen Ballum also blogs at Sassymonkey and Sassymonkey Reads. She still sometimes considers taking a math class ... for fun.

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