How to Help Children Love Mathematics

In September 2013, the New York Times had an excellent op-ed piece entitled “How I Fell in Love With Math.” Unfortunately, I saw it today, and I got goosebumps because I have always loved math.

Every person is a product of his or her childhood experiences. I remember sitting in the back of a church when I was 12. I didn’t want to be there in the middle of the week. My parents allowed me to have my math book. If I could do the math, I would be happy. I had M&Ms in one hand and math in the other.

When I was young, I wanted to have a good education. I wouldn’t say I liked the fact that we knew we were in schools that were not as good that did not have the resources. I was not too fond of the idea of having to use tedious textbooks and long lectures. I always wondered why the school was like that.

I was determined to major in mathematics in college. I did. I went through school, always loving math. But I always noticed that most kids did not like math. Today, I am still trying to figure out what we could do to help more children like math.

How many of you love mathematics? Unfortunately, it is a pretty nerdy group. But the real question is: What does it take to help students from all kinds of economic backgrounds succeed?

There are several major points. Number one is the notion of high expectations. What does it mean to be prepared for college in math and science, and engineering?

Photo by Jaime Lopes on Unsplash

You may not know this, but only 6% of America’s 24-year-olds of all races have degrees in STEM. What happens when students who aren’t interested in math and science have large numbers interested in engineering or medicine? The majority of students who begin with majors in those disciplines do not graduate with bachelor’s in those areas. It doesn’t surprise people that only 35% of the students who start with a major in science and engineering will graduate. In other words, 2/3 of all college students start off saying I want to be an engineer or major in chemistry, and only 2/3 of them will leave it.

The number one reason is they did not do well in the first-year courses. Thus it is a K-12 problem. We know that we have to continue to improve K-12. On the other hand, many students with five on AP exams with perfect math scores go to the most prestigious places within the first year and change their majors because they don’t do well in the coursework.

What we work to do in understanding the challenges of minorities has helped us with all students. When you talk about high expectations, you should ask these questions; what background does a student need? What kind of math background does a student need? How are you going to make sure that you get faculty ready to work with that student? And most importantly, how will you measure success as you look at what happens with students?

So the notion of high expectations is building community among the students.

If you majored in science and engineering in this country in the last 25 years, you know that much of the work is based on a competitive basis, that often we’re talking about curving the grades and rarely have people been taught to work in groups. Usually, we call it cut-throat.

Everybody knows you have to be very careful because, quite frankly, if somebody else gets a higher grade, you may get a lower grade. So, the mindset and culture in science teaching and learning have to do with a cut-throat approach too often.

Secondly, the assumption is most people won’t make it. If you look at the number of seats in the second-year’s work in engineering or science, you will see it is about 1/3 the number of seats as in the first-year’s work because the assumption is most won’t make it. And as a result, it is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

So the question here is how do you build a community of students and faculty with this notion that we can do it, that if you don’t do well on the test, it doesn’t mean it is over, that you want to build competencies that you want to use the technology to make a difference? We should build communities of scholars. Then we need to redesign courses. Yes, we need to redesign all of the STEM courses. For instance, we can flip the work and get away from the lecture method as the primary method. We can use group work. Most importantly, we should look at how we use analytics to understand what’s working and what’s not working. So it helps continue to revise what we do.

The idea should be simple; if students fail, we fail. We should always look at the student to our left and our right. Our goal is to make sure all of the students graduate, and if they don’t, we fail.

The third most important point is to get the researchers and the experts connected to the students and get them into the labs and into the companies. We need to reach large numbers of students working on intelligence and cybersecurity questions and large numbers of students working in biotechnology labs. If they can do well in the coursework, they will have a chance to be mentored by people, get involved in the actual work, and see how engineering, computer science, and biotechnology work connects to real life. Then they get excited and passionate about the work.

To the extent that the experts should say to the students, “You can do this.” We also need a large number of experts in this country to say, “It’s not right that there are so few women in science or technology.” Women are half of the population, and it is not fair to think about minorities of women in the science and math fields. We need to get women involved in our companies and our labs, build their background K-12, and make sure they make it.

If we want our children to be leaders one day, we have to give them that sense of self. We have to teach them the importance of curiosity.
When I.I. Rabi, a Nobel laureate, was asked what she learned in school one day, and he said, “Not my Jewish mother.” They should ask, “Did you ask a good question today?” That’s what we have to do. We have to encourage kids to ask good questions and believe that they can dare to be the best and change whatever is going on.

We should tell our students, “You can be excellent in math, or you can be excellent in literature, but you can be the best that there is.”

What we need in education, what we need in STEM is self-belief. It’s in the empowering of our children.

We should never, never, never give up.
Watch your thoughts; they become your words.
Watch your words; they become your actions.
Watch your actions; they become your habits.
Watch your habits; they become your character.
Watch your character; it becomes your destiny, dreams, and values.

I know that you need some words to talk. Here, reading will be perfect for you.

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