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Geek Girls Go!


I've always loved the story of Ada Byron, Countess of Lovelace. Recently, a portrait of her was purchased at auction. It's a great way to encourage the students at HCIS that tech can be fun no matter what gender(s) you are. If you're the parent of a middle school kid, share with them the real faces of tech and they'll be forever hooked. Right now, the Math/Science/Tech educators at HCIS are talking alot about why students come to us claiming " I just dont get math" or "I'm NOT a chemistry person". My 3.5 year old cant stop asking about how things work...where's the disconnect? Please comment about when and why you decided , "I just dont DO math..." or what was it that helped you persevere through our culture's math/science stigma.


I fell off the math train in the 3rd grade, when we got to long division. I think it was due to a combination of factors. I got swapped to another class at my school that year (they traded one "good kid" for two "bad kids," too many troublemakers in the other class or something), so I was out of my element, and I think teachers assumed that because I was one of the "smart kids" if I wasn't doing well it wasn't because I was genuinely floundering, it was due to laziness or not trying hard enough. I still did well in science and never lost my curiosity there--but math, to this day, is a lost cause with me.

In my advanced algebra class in high school the teacher was also the football coach. If the boys gave a wrong answer in class they had to do push ups. If the girls gave a wrong answer, nothing. If the teacher didn't care whether or not I could do the work, why should I?

Your question is looking more at girls, I think, but I think this book still would be relevant. "Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys" by Dan Kindlon and Michael Thompson talks about how kids start disliking school. Something will be hard, or they'll fall behind, they'll start to think of themselves as dumb, and by age 12 or 13, they have made up their minds that they're not good at school, that they don't like school.
I think what would help is to let students move at their own pace more. Don't worry so much about grade levels. I don't see how that's possible in school, when you're coordinating the needs of so many students.
I'm homeschooling my kids, and it's a huge benefit that if my son understands something, we move on. If he doesn't understand something, we keep working on it. There's no judgment to be made that he failed and has to repeat something. Some things just take longer to learn than others.
I think it's good if the students can separate their self-image and self-worth from their grades.

i agree that this is primarily a function of being thrown into a classroom with a large number of kids and forced to move at the same pace. i quit in 3rd grade when it came to math. it came down to needing more time and being too self-conscious to ask for it. result: a math drop-out.

i also think, however, that math is taught too often as an abstraction instead of in real-world terms. it helped our homeschooled non-math oriented kid to get outside and measure things, to help dad with construction, and focus on his talent as a visual learner. it is nearly impossible to do that with 20-25 kids. by the time they get to you, Baci, they've been turned off for a long time.

"doing figures" is not the way to foster a love of math unless you've got yourself a puzzle lover. that's a unique interest. most people need to learn math more in real-world terms, and it's only once we get to adulthood that it works for us in that way. if kids were more given the uses for doing figures, and how they can help us do certain things, then it would go a long way toward fostering interest.

learning algebra meant being able to pass the class, otherwise it meant nothing to me. even geometry was taught in such a way that it was divorced from its real meaning.

I also fell off the math train with the introduction of long division. I even remember crying like crazy when I had to learn the multiplication tables...In the very rural school where I grew up (near Duluth in Wisconsin), I struggled through algebra I and II and Geometry and Trig...It was horrible and I didn't understand it - the teacher was mean and we always had to correct each other's papers, which was very embarrassing because of how poorly I was doing. The worst was doing problems up on the blackboard in front of the class: There'd be a group of us at a time, but only a few, so everyone got to watch the "dummies" take the longest to figure it out as the teacher egged us on for not getting it...Oh MAN do I not miss high school. There were groups of kids who did really well in math and therefore had special study groups where they'd learn advanced stuff and receive perks for being in that group - it kind of made those of us who didn't get it feel like morons who weren't worth much because we couldn't understand. I think there was also a lot of emphasis (in that environment) put on the point that boys tended to be better in math than girls. Our main teacher, however, was a woman (as horrible as she was), and she made you feel like a moron if you didn't understand something. Sometimes we had this really old guy come in to substitute and he always explained things in a more simplified, less stressful way...His theory was KISS - Keep it Simple, Stupid. Of course, he also used some corporal punishment in his "method", but we liked him so much more than that horrible woman...

Hmm, I think the biggest thing that hindered me in my ability to "get" math, was that I had teachers who only taught math "one way", and if your brain didn't get it, you were exiled to the "slow math" class. After that, you pretty much assume that you didn't inherit some math gene and were forever doooomed.
Only when I got to college (the second time) did I find a math teacher who was able to make me feel like I "got" math. He was able to give lots of examples and different ways of understanding, so if you didn't catch it the first way, odds were you'd catch it when he went over it in a different fashion. After you get a few "Ah-ha!" moments (as in "I got it!", not George Michael's 80's band), you begin to realize that maybe you're not so bad at math after all, you just didn't have any math teachers who knew/cared about teaching in different methods.
Thanks for the Ada picture - that's so kick-ass! When I see the cool things that Harbor City is doing, it makes me wish I were in high-school again...

Two things:

1) I was put into a split grade (four 2nd graders in a 3rd grade class) wherein I was whisked through multiplication en route to division. I never memorized the tables, therefore never understood arithmetic, even when I was in higher math. I still can't do simple math without a calculator. Complex math, yes. Arithmetic, no.

2) Adults always kept asking which subject I hated. I didn't have one, but felt pressure to, so I chose math and stuck to it. A self-fulfilling statement.

The thing is, I'm pretty good at understanding mathmatical concepts. Just don't ask me what 7x4 is, because I literally don't know.

Also, Badcat, George Michael was NOT in A-ha. You're thinking of Wham.

The what that turned me off about math was a who: The weaselly little wrestling coach/algebra teacher with whom I had Nothing in common. I can still see his greasy little mustache.......Today? I am married to a math professor (with a cute beard) who says he loves my organized, logical, mathematical mind. Who knew?

Doh! Looks like I failed in my music education as well...

i always experienced math in colors. red was especially math to me. my art teachers didn't get me & didn't expect much art from me & my math teachers were the same. sooner or later i realized blue was very spacial & delivered the most numbers. green as well, but my favorite was yellow. it meant the most math to me.
otherwise all i can say is you can take math & shove it up your pingpong.

As a math teacher, I credit several excellent teachers with keeping me tuned in to my interest in mathematics. I can't say that I was ever a math person in high school but I quickly became one in college when I realized that I had a more developed basic skill set than many of my classmates. Once I started performing very well it was really easy to get excited about the subject and stay motivated to continue doing good work. The fact that my high school math teacher was really tough, yet really nice, ended up making all the difference.

A large part of the overall problem is societal. It's okay to say you suck in math. You would never brag about being illiterate. This manifests itself in the worst possible way when a parent says to a kid it's okay if you are not good at math because its hard or I wasn't either. Yeah its hard but so is guitar hero at first. But if you practice enough at it maybe you to can unlock the secrets of calculus.

From a geeky chica:

I see on this post, a substantial lack of personal accountability. As a teacher myself, I understand the power of reaching out and inspiring students. I grew up in a household with two poor students as parents, with a maternal unit who often bemoaned how terrible at math she was. Did it stop me from enjoying mathematics? No. Did moving districts in 4th grade, where my former district was 2 academic years behind the curriculum of my new school and staying in at recess to learn my timestables and division facts for 5 months, make me think it was okay not to like, or to try my best at the subject of mathematics? No! My suburban mathematics career was good. I felt challenged. I found help whereever I could (as it was not to be found at home). I went on to college and obtained a degree in Spanish. Did that stop me from taking three math courses I didn't need for my degree? No. I did it for balance. I took those classes to have one course, at least, where there was a right and wrong answer. To push myself. Do I remember how to integrate? No, but I don't think my tuition for those courses was wasted. What we need, as a society, is to push ourselves. To try hard. To encourage our kids to do something even if they aren't any good at it-- it makes us a better and stronger people. My two cents.

Thanks for the feedback! As a high school teacher the feeling that kids come through our door in 9th grade with a predisposed math/science turn off has always been disheartening to say the least. Thankfully we have great math/science teachers at HCIS (and I know that there are great teachers at all schools), and we're trying innovative strategies in our approach. What impressed me was the emotional aspect of many of your answers, I suppose thats the nature of dis-empowerment.

In high school, I met a cool foreign exchange student from Germany during a bike trip. He swore to me that many students learned calculus by ninth grade there.

Another friend from Holland (Dutch Holland, not Michigan) told me something along the same lines.

Though I was exceptional at math (calculus, set theory, number theory) in secondary school, I was humbled :)

Point is, maybe we shouldn't baby our students.

I never took calculus--I occasionally wish I had, but the way it played out I remain pretty happy with the decisions I made. My junior year in high school, I got Bs and Cs in pre-calc, and was lucky to get the Bs. As senior year rolled around, I registered for some kind of "advanced math concepts" class or somesuch, which was the label du jour for a course that would teach some calculus but wasn't the AP Calc course. Since only 3 other people signed up for it, they dropped it. That gave me a choice between enduring another year of math conducted at a rapid pace with all the math over-achievers, or no math. I went with "no math." I had a delightful senior year without it. And I did manage to get into college and there performed fairly well, albeit in part because the only vaguely math-related course I took was an introductory statistics class.

I've never done math...remedial life forever, baby! Anything beyond the basics is a confusing mess to me. I sucked at it and like magus, my algebra teacher was an assistant Basketball coach (we didn't have football) with a serious short guy complex who thought nothing of berating anyone (mostly me) who couldn't grasp the algebraic concept (me again). After about three weeks or so of trying, failing and being made fun of because of my inability to do the work, I tapped out and went with a less difficult class.

That said, I generally tended to excel at my other non-math courses.

Um, I love math! Always have, except in 7th grade when I hated my math teacher. I medaled in state in math league and was a math and physics major in college for 2 years before I switched to philosophy.

What has always engaged me about math is that, well, it's fun! Every "problem" is a puzzle. Every "rule" is like a little insight into the inner workings of the universe.

One of my great pleasures in homeschooling is working with my kids on their math.

Viva la math!

I think the biggest problem is that math / science teachers sometimes make their subject matter too "dense". Not that I am saying they should hold the students hand... but providing real-world examples and some interesting ways of looking at the subject matter may help students understand it better.

I think also... kids just don't care anymore, especially with the advent of the computer. Why should they learn algebra when they have calculators and computers that will do the work for them? Why go through the trouble to learn how atoms bond together to form compounds when that work has already been done?

Not to mention focus on other activities (e.g. sports, theater, etc) from parents could, potentially, drive a kid to believe that these are the things on which they should focus.

Maybe I'm a huge nerd... but I love maths and science. It may be maturity, it may be the nerd in me, I am not sure. The quest for knowledge is what helps me persevere. Unfortunately telling girls you can calculate the big-oh complexity of an algorithm doesn't always turn them on.


I was a mathlete, too.

I credit two exceptional teachers - one in high school and one in college. It makes a huge difference how math is taught. Rote memorization of tables is boring. Word problems, drawn from experiences that kids can relate to, are more conducive to learning.

I have always had a passion for science (not so much for math) and was always encouraged at home. My parents bought me a home planetarium and other "scientific" things. A shout out to my high school bio teacher (hi Mrs. Smith from East!)for making my anatomy class fun. I went on to get a degree in education with a biology concentration and can still name all the bones in the human body.

My 6-year-old daughter loves science. My husband and I are running with this and I hope and pray she never loses her love of learning and her scientific curiosity. Sean (husband) took the day off yesterday and we all drove down to the Liberty Science Center in New Jersey. She LOVED it, and although a lot of it was for older kids, I feel she still got a lot out of it (she wrote a small report on the Milksnake, she learned to draw the Chinese character for "rain", climbed a rock wall, built and raced her own racecar, etc.

We do chemistry experiments at home, and her favorite Christmas present was her microscope. She also loves and does well with math. (Does it sound like I'm bragging? Sorry. ;))

I think it's important for parents and teachers to really pay attention to what kids are interested in and expose them to as much as they can. As for when and where girls get steered away from careers in math and science, I'm not sure but it does happen.

I dropped out of maths at age 40 when I could finally afford to hire someone to do them for me! Whew! Train them youngsters well so that I can relax.

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