Making math “uncool” is hurting America… (with math is cool round up)

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If you read all the articles about America falling behind in math and science you can’t help but be bummed out, but that’s not how we roll at MAKE… Below is a snip from a recent report about how we’re collectively making math uncool, instead of pointing fingers or complaining, I’d like to ask everyone to post up in the comments on what *you’re* doing with your kids to make math more fun and “cool”… We have a lot of teachers and parents who read MAKE so let everyone know what’s working and what’s not, I’ll send a Maker’s Notebook to a good suggestion or story… (check out links after the jump from past posts, math is a huge part of any craft).

Americans may like to make fun of girls who are good at math, but this attitude is robbing the country of some of its best talent, researchers reported on Friday. They found that while girls can be just as talented as boys at mathematics, some are driven from the field because they are teased, ostracized or simply neglected. “The U.S. culture that is discouraging girls is also discouraging boys,” Janet Mertz, a University of Wisconsin-Madison professor who led the study said in a statement. “The situation is becoming urgent. The data show that a majority of the top young mathematicians in this country were not born here.”

Writing in the Notices of the American Mathematical Society, Mertz and colleagues described their analysis of data from international math competitions going back to 1974. They also looked at surveys of U.S. students. “It is deemed uncool within the social context of USA middle and high schools to do mathematics for fun; doing so can lead to social ostracism. Consequently, gifted girls, even more so than boys, usually camouflage their mathematical talent to fit in well with their peers,” they wrote.

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50 thoughts on “Making math “uncool” is hurting America… (with math is cool round up)

  1. If you can’t answer this question:

    Solve for a: a^2 + 9a + 20 = 0

    Then you’re really part of the problem, and here’s why…

    If you can’t help your kids with their homework or look them in the eyes and tell them why they need to know it, well, guess what, they won’t worry about learning it.

    I’ve found that, as a parent, the best motivation comes from knowing it myself, so _I_ can show how it will help them do cool and interesting things. Also, as a living example, explaining to them how their father has gone back to school to learn math has helped immensely (not once, but 4 times over the past 15 years – And, is currently taking a math class at the local Jr. college).

    Bottom line: Your kids will follow your example. If they don’t know math, then you only have yourself to blame. And, no, it isn’t easy, but JFK once said, “We do this not because it is easy, but because it is hard”. Those are words to live by.

  2. I’ve been crocheting some hyperbolic planes with my 1st grader. She picks the numbers, and that’s the amount I increase every round. Right now she’s just learning crochet, but when she gets better she’ll be doing that herself – which makes it much more clear, I think. Hey, it helped me learn the geometry of the hyperbolic plane…

  3. I find that showing practical applications can spark interest in math. My favorite example is Amateur Radio, or electronics in general. Whether it is the simple math involved in cutting a simple dipole antenna for a desired frequency or the more complicated math involved in figuring out complex impedance of an antenna system to predict it’s performance, the Amateur Radio hobby is rife with mathematical problems that have real world impact.

  4. I’ve done simple algebra with my daughter since 2nd grade (sh’s in 3rd now). I just constructed problems that would have whole number solutions (since she hadn’t yet learned fractions). Started with very simple equations (x+2=4), then made them slightly more complex (2x+4=8), and finally introduced some new concepts (x^2=9). Her interest really took off when her mother, a substitute teacher, informed her that the problem she was working on was one that the 6th graders had been having some difficulty with that day…

  5. On the topic of girls and math-bashing, here is an email that I recently wrote to the corporate headquarters of my local grocery store:

    Subject: Savemart is sending harmful message of sexist sterotypes to young girls

    I am writing to let you and your company know about a deeply offensive and harmful message that is currently being displayed in your stores. I am a regular customer at Lucky’s supermarket, and today I was standing in the checkout line looking at a display of refrigerator magnets when I noticed this:

    (IMAGE: Refrigerator magnet that reads *I’m too pretty to do math.* in pink letters)

    I have to say that I was absolutely shocked that my local grocery store would specifically target young girls with a message that academic achievement and beauty are incompatible, and that beauty is the more bragworthy quality. Thankfully, my lovely AND brilliant six-year old daughter was not with me, because I do not wish to expose her to the idea that her accomplishments in math and science in anyway diminish her attractiveness, or to the idea that denigrating her own intelligence is a good way to project an image of sexy coolness. As a mother of a young girl, I have to battle with these corrosive and offensive stereotypes in the media all the time, but I refuse to spend my hard-earned money at a supermarket that would try to warp my daughter’s worldview while we are waiting in line to buy milk and goldfish crackers.

    I brought my complaint to the store manager, who told me that he does not have the power to decide what products are displayed, but said that he would convey my complaint to the corporate office. I respectfully request a response from your company that will assure me that this product placement was an error, and does not reflect the core values of Savemart. If I do not hear from you, and products such as this remain on display, I intend to boycott your stores and to spread the word about these harmful products by contacting local PTA groups, moms groups, parenting blogs, and advocacy groups for women in math and science.

    Thank you for your time and attention to this matter.

    About a week later, I received a call from the store’s buyer saying that all the magnets had been “removed and destroyed”, and would no longer be stocked at any of their stores. All this to say, we _can_ fight these messages when we see them. Sometimes, all you have to do is ask!

  6. One of the main issues with getting middle school kids (and middle school is an important area to focus on – if you do not take the correct Math class in 7th grade then you are trapped in a system that will not allow you to take Calculus in Senior year without summer school – most STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering & Math) based colleges and their majors will not accept you without it). is to show them not only what they can do with Science and Math, but WHO is doing it.
    Every year my university holds a conference called “Expanding Your Horizons” where female scientists in industry teach middle school girls science. There were over 80 conferences across the US and last year we had over 400 middle school girls. The girls get to meet and talk with real female scientists and mathematicians.

    Not only do we need to make science and math fun – we need to show them the jobs that they can do with such skills, and that “normal” people do these jobs. In particular, I think it is important or girls to recognize this is a field they can pursue.

  7. Okay, now that I’m done ranting (first post above), here’s a couple of examples and suggestions that I’ve used to help my kids get interested in math.

    1.) Go take a math class. It’s pretty cool to have your kids help you out on your homework (well, it’s cool for them ;). It’s also motivating for them when you sit down to do homework together. And, taking a math class shows that you think it’s important enough to take time out of a busy schedule to work on. Finally, it sends a positive message to your kids that learning is a lifelong task, and not just something you sit through until you reach age eighteen.

    2.) Learn it together. Use free software (or online sources) to learn topics that rely on math. There’s a couple of excellent (and easy to learn) programming tools for kids that can stimulate math learning. Here’s a few:

    StarLogo TNG:
    Dr. Geo:
    Squeak eToys:

    3.) Put math in it’s place, is very useful for thought provoking math exploration (and free for everyone). Check out the courses “Math Illuminated”, “Learning Math: Patterns, functions and Algebra” and “Algebra in Simplest Terms”.

    I hope these are more helpful than my ranting. =)

  8. @Tara – Excellent story. If more parents were like you, the world would be a better place.

    @the first poster. Sum = 9 product = 20. I’m a bit disappointed with myself that it took me half a minute to work that out. I have a B.Math degree, and it’s kind of depressing just how much I’ve forgotten.

  9. I don’t think innumeracy comes merely from not exposing kids to math. I think it comes from failing to interest kids in the learning process itself.

    We’ve homeschooled our kids, some of them 100%, some just mostly. My wife does most all of the teaching, because I’m gone most of the time (working.) But our children were (and are still being) taught to learn, and to appreciate everything they learn. My wife is pretty amazing to start with, because she teaches everything including Latin! Additionally, in the last few years, I’ve acquired two associates degrees and demonstrated ferocity in acquiring knowledge and learning, resulting in a pair of degrees, summa cum laude.

    Home schooling curricula tend to focus on the traditional approaches, by the way (partly because of the problem of ‘modern’ methods which don’t work, partly because of the copyright problem which can make it impossible for independent education systems which aren’t made of money getting materials.) Because of this, our kids have learned many things that just aren’t taught anymore: estimation, making change, etc. These things help tremendously in later math study, as well as being necessary to comprehend scientific and engineering notation and significant figures, and other such things.

    But the one thing that has sparked interest in math with kids that I’ve done, myself, is introduce them to slide rules. The idea that you can add distances with logarithmic markings to multiply and divide, and use side-by-side scales to perform functions like logs, trig functions, conversions, etc, is exciting and very new to a generation that doesn’t even know what a slide rule is! This leads easily to nomographs and other graphical ways of performing complex calculations with minimal suffering… but I don’t just teach the tools, I teach the way they work. (Learning to use tools without learning why they do what they do is as dangerous in math and science as in shop!)

    And finally, the math of music (harmonics, the ear’s mixing effect, chords, etc) makes another great way to introduce older children to math concepts that they might otherwise miss.

  10. I am a 5th grade science teacher and I use the projects in Make: to spark interest in both girls and boys. The students (especially boys) in my classes love to read my back issues of the magazine.
    Also, our school is hosting a Math/Science Night where the 5th grade students are leading families in practical projects using math and science concepts. This is exciting because our school is located in a lower-income community.

  11. When I was young, nobody ever taught me the practicality of learning math. I always wanted to work in designing/engineering, but I didn’t realize that math was one of the main steps in getting to that goal.

    Now I’m 26, and just finally learning Calculus, because I had to relearn everything down to basic long division.

    Kids need to really be told about the amazing and practical ways mathematics will improve their lives.

  12. Solve for a: a^2 + 9a + 20 = 0


    Speaking as someone from an Asian society, I would say that this problem is not just limited to the US. However I think there’s a much stronger drive to do well academically, hence students are more motivated to do whatever it takes, including learning maths well. Regardless, most forget what they have learnt after leaving school.

  13. I don’t have kids, but I can tell you my less than pleasant experiences with math.

    When learning basic math, it was fun, made into games and shown practical applications. Maybe that’s because it was being done in primary school with little kids, but either way, my introduction to math was pleasant.

    When in intermediate school(or elementary or middle or whatever you call it), math suddenly became this boring chore that had no point. Introductions to algebra were done with 60 problems each night for homework, and each problem differed only in their numbers. No practical applications or exercises were done, no games made of it, nothing. I got horrible math grades at this time, because I would simply do the first 5 problems and call it quits. What was the point if they were all the same?

    It wasn’t much of a leap from doing only 5 problems to skipping math entirely, and letting my grade scrape by on what I could answer on tests. This continued into high school where I suddenly found that some math was indeed very fun, but math class still wasn’t.

    I was in pre-algebra class my freshman year due to my previous poor grades, and because of this I had to forge my math teacher’s signature to be able to take computer science. By the time they found out I was so far ahead of the rest of the class the instructor let me stay. Nobody could figure out why I wasn’t going to math class or doing my math homework, but was getting the top grade in the class in Comp Sci.

    I asked them to skip me up a level or two, to provide some more challenging and interesting material, but no. Even though I could do the tests, I had to do the entire class before moving up. So me, in all my teenage wisdom, just retreated into myself during class(if I couldn’t find an excuse to skip) and sketched on my math homework. By the time senior year came, the opportunity to learn higher math had passed me.

    and that, my friends, is why I’m the geekiest photojournalism major I know.

    PS. the climate at my school definitely did not help things. Being smart was nice, but not desirable. The school seemed to spend most of it’s money on sports, and there were no cerebral extracurricular activities to engage in other than chess club, and there was no more picture perfect group of super nerds to be associated with.
    My Chemistry teacher was even originally hired to coach softball, and spent most of class talking about his Swedish wife and how she couldn’t understand English.

  14. This Everyday Math that came out of University of Chicago that is being adopted by all the public schools is complete rubbish. My daughter has had it for 3rd and 4th grade now, and we supplement her with extra math problems because:
    1. it does not provide adequate repetition of problems. It only gives her 3 or 4 problems of one type and then flits to another entirely different problem (figuring that kids will get bored if they have to do 20 problems of the same thing). The problem is when they come back to that type of problem, she doesn’t recall how to do them (because she didn’t do very many in the first place.
    2. the other problem is it teaches absolutely crazy algorithms to solving very basic addition and subtraction problems. I don’t see the point, because the old ways are far more efficient, and she will never have time to think through the long tedious algorithms that they are teaching to do simple addition and subtraction.

    When I talked to my daughter’s teacher who is the head of the math department, his reply was “every kid falls in a different place in the mean curve. Some are naturally good at math, and some aren’t.” Sorry but I believe in “hard work does pay off.” So I’ll continue supplementing my daughter’s math.

    Incidently, her friend across the street is now being home-schooled, because she’s having a hard time with 1st grade math – in fourth grade.

  15. Math is so fundamental to so many applications in life. I think a teacher who says “Some are naturally good and math and some aren’t” should be fired…out of a cannon.

  16. I am a 24 year old math teacher in a high school. I have found that the way to keep kids interested is to be interested in what they are. I talk to the kids about music / shows / myspace / life. They realize that I am a person that can be trusted and they can confide in and talk to, and in turn they are interested in what I have to say.

    I try to keep the mood in my classrooms light, with open lines of communication. Kids are afraid to be wrong, thinking they are failures. I tell all my kids to go to the board and do problems, and if they are wrong, then they are wrong! Who cares! We correct mistakes! Thats the way you learn, and I have kids who were deathly afraid to even raise their hands running to the board everyday!

    I think kids need to realize that math is going to be apart of their lives, no matter what they do. Granted, they might not be doing calculus in their futures, or using geometric proofs for anything, but by being exposed to it they will be more well rounded individuals and be better thinkers…

  17. Boys are falling behind in pretty much every major indicator of success in school, and yet here we are still talking about girls. Granted, math seems to be the one area where boys still outperform girls, but that may be more indicative of nature than nurture. I think this is a unisex issue.

    Anyway, I think framing this in the language of “cool” is a big part of the problem. Math has been dorky and nerdy since my father was in school in the 40s.

    One way to do this might be to counter-position it as a sort of anti-cool, in the sense that the whole geek/dork/nerd continuum is now seen in a somewhat positive light, outside the mainstream perhaps, but sort of punk in its own way. Math is the secret super-power that true nerds use to take over the world, and all aspiring super-nerds should at least learn a little calculus.

  18. Don’t let your kids watch television. Ever.

    That way you can avoid the kind of crazy stereotypes that exist there for smart kids, especially those who like math and science. We have done that with our two girls (now aged 8 and 10.) We realize that as a parent you only have a limited time to really influence your children before their peers take over, so we have tried to expose them to as much of the positive side of math and science while we still have a chance…

    Share your interests with them- we take the girls to all kinds of science/engineering/DIY activities, and give them a chance to meet and be inspired by working scientists, engineers, artists and hackers of all kinds. One of the really cool things I have found about technical people is how willing they are to talk to the girls without condescension. Unlike adults in general, these people tend to talk to an interested and smart kid just the way they would to any peer. What seems to annoy non-technical adults (i.e. giving them the straight information, without gearing it down) seems to interest and inspire kids. I guess kids are not really used to understanding everything anyway, and they just like being taken seriously. We go to Dorkbot, local MAKE: and Hacker events, and they enjoy competing in the school science and engineering fairs. They may or may not ultimately love this stuff as much as my wife and I do, but they will certainly be exposed to it, and will have an understanding of what math and science can be used for.

    Lastly, spend some time teaching your kids about _how_ math works- not just helping them to do the problems on their homework, but actually demonstrating the concepts. My older daughter and I made a big graph to demonstrate how “n choose m” works in elementary probability, which was both fun and helped her to understand the concept better for school. Even older kids like the time they spend with their parents doing something fun! Writing elementary computer programs is a great way to help the kids “beat the system” on complex problems while learning a lot about how to really answer questions.

    I would love to see this trend reverse here in the US, as I think we loose a lot of opportunities for smart kids my marginalizing the technical fields. If we can change the attitudes of the next generation, perhaps entertainment and popular acclaim will follow!

  19. My math education stopped at pre-calculus. However, I had an interest in math all through K-12 (with similar experiences as Jesse in that math turned dry & pointless in high school). However, I pressed on and found out in college how well some of this math applied in the real world, and I also exercised the use of algebra for my own benefit on the side.

    When my son was young, and had just learned the basics of math I sat him down and showed him what these funny looking high-math equations and symbols really were. Factorials were just a special case of multiplication, and summation symbols were just another way to add, and how those x’s and y’s in algebra were just a placeholder for some number, and why there were no multiplication symbols – and so on. He got it right away and was never afraid to look / touch math problems again.

    Although this method has little to do with overcoming peer pressure, it helped my son overcome any fears he had about math from an early age, and he did well until middle-school and high-school peer pressures diminished any further desires to do well in anything.

    Now that he’s out of high-school he’s starting to see the benefits of things like algebra again. However, the pressure to not be perceived as ‘nerdy’ in school is obviously having a big impact on many kids. Some of the smarter kids hide this fact from the friends.

  20. I noticed something interesting from these comments. I am a grade 11 student in Sydney and can do the question in the first post no problem, along with a significant amount of calculus. All of this was taught to me in the regular yr11 mathematics course, yet people here talk about not learning it in senior year and in uni!? Aren’t Americans taught calculus in school?

  21. @Mitch,

    Actually, no, calculus isn’t a requirement in American high schools. All I ever had to take was algebra and geometry, and it wasn’t until many years later that I realized as I learned more math I was able to comprehend more complex topics and ideas. So now, 19 years after leaving high school, I’m just starting to get caught up on math, and I’m _still_ working on trig and calc.

    Sadly, many Americans are proud of their math ignorance, and will gladly tell you how bad they really are it. It is this attitude that the article mentioned above is trying to address. For some reason, it’s not socially acceptable to admit that you are good at or, heaven forbid, like math in this country.

  22. In my opinion, the core of the problem is that often kids have just to much information (too many math formulae, for instance), but not a single idea of how to use them or why/when they are useful.

    So, the first thing to do is motivate them: why care about math, in the first place? Simple things like “which way to go?”, where a lazy guess can lead to a x+2km walk instead of just x. A simple drawing may help them understand the *idea* first. If they don’t understand the problem, they cannot solve it at all—guessing the right solution is still guessing.

    After they got the idea and are properly motivated (“if I take path X-Y instead of X-W-Z-Y to school at an average speed of 4.5 km/h, I can actually chew my breakfast!”), understanding why trigonometry or simple algebra may help them (possibly) all the time will get effective, as they will be *willing* to understand.

    With a solid foundation of what would be called “basics” (usually taken as granted), they can go further the same way: why care about problem X; which tools are useful/applicable; why do they work.

    As it was already stated in previous comments, if you (the adult) don’t do it yourself, odds are that your kids won’t do it either.

  23. Well I agree with many of the previous posters, however I definitely think we need to stress one thing for sure whether we are homeschooling or schooling in the classroom. Math needs to be taught in an authentic manner. As a woman science/ math teacher, I have never really thought boys were better than girls or girls better than boys in math. Furthermore, I never really thought about just teaching basic math (or any math, really) without reason. When we taught math, we taught it for a purpose or a reason. I wanted my students to see math in context of the real world and why this was important. This meant teaching math in units based on my class’s interest. Perhaps it was a 4-wheeler one week, or maybe northern lights the next week. I do not know how math is applied in every way, but I do know how to learn;) Sometimes I would be learning the math right along side with my students as we explored the content. And this is important, because I was not afraid to show that #1 I did not know everything and #2 I was not afraid to learn something new so I could encourage my students interests in “learning.” I have heard of people saying they were afraid of math, but I have never really felt this way. So, I agree with other posters, overcoming that fear would be the first step, by taking a class or learning on the web.

    I will continue, however, to argue and prove to those teachers that teach just out of the book and believe some math is just rote memorization that learning happens best when we can see it’s purpose.

    As a homeschool parent, I teach my son math everyday, but not out of a textbook. We spend time on using math for building our cabin, wiring the cabin, or pumping water. He learns to use math for programming, game playing, and wherever else his interests take him. Now he does practice basics (Aleks) alongside of this, but we are pretty aware of helping to make connections to content he is learning independently.

    We also encourage math in our Educational VTC/ Curriculum business (Kigluait Adventures). Many of our Videoconference programs use varied cultural content such as Dog Mushing to learn math, reading and writing. Much of our content, in fact, was originally created to meet the needs of youth in Alaska because of the varied cultures.
    So I challenge all teachers and parents, show how math is used everyday. Not just the basic math though, as many of the other posters have stated. Engage youth to explore the inner depths of how things function and work, and how the math applies (we just took apart a non-digital watch and have been learning about gear ratios. Which is truly why Make is one of those indispensable websites for a teacher and parent.

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