The Problem With Math

I haven’t written a blog in a while. Actually, none this year so far. But like Shrek says, “It’s on my to do list!” So here goes…The Problem With Math.

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The problem with math is that it’s not just a math problem. I’ll explain that eventually. When people hear that I am a structural engineer, they always say that I must love math and that I must be very good at it. Blah Blah Blah. To be honest, I never really loved math and I didn’t think I was particularly gifted at it. Sure, in high school I was a Summa Cum Laude honor roll student. Math class was easy, but I was not Rain Man idiot savant flashing prime numbers or multiples in my head. And in college, I became a solid, mediocre calculus student. Until it clicked. And then when it clicked. I started getting A’s. This is why I tell everybody to keep at it. Because I learned what the problem with math is. And I’ll tell you below after relating this little story.

I remember the very first class I took in engineering. I had been out of school for several years after completing my first two degrees at Emory University. I was going back for a career-focused degree; something that would provide me with a skill and a secure job because being down and out in Southern California isn’t as glamorous as Nick Nolte and Bette Midler portray it as in Down And Out In Beverly Hills. I was tired of competing for jobs as a liberal arts major. And I was broke after the real estate bubble burst. Yes, that other one.

I arrived in my first class at the College of Engineering at California State University, Long Beach (Go 49ers!) in the evening after the kind of nasty sun-blinding commute on the 5 freeway for which California is infamous. I’d left my full-time accounting job (yes, I know I said I didn’t like math…. but I DO like money!) with no time for food or a change of clothes. This would become my normal life for a few years. Work until 5 pm, drive a heinous hour-long commute up the 5 freeway to Long Beach for classes until 10 pm, then commute home to BEGIN nightly homework until about 2 am. Rinse. Rise. Repeat.

The October “Save The Ta Ta’s” Breast Cancer Awareness this month reminded me of that day; that first day of my engineering degree. I was enrolled in Analytical Mechanics “Statics” class, an entry level engineering course. I was wearing a hot pink linen-cotton blend dress and feeling very out of place. I took a seat at the front of the class. Students poured in until it was standing room only. Not only was I about 5 years older than the other students, I was a female – one of the few in the room, and Caucasian in a room blended with Asians, Mexicans and Persians. (As most Americans are not adept at identifying specific ethnicities from one another, I generalized that the room was full of Asians. And, of course, the common American view that all Asians are smart and good at math made me all the more anxious. Yes, I was THAT naive. Funny thing is that I come from an immigrant family myself.).

Nonetheless, I was in the minority. The professor stood up and introduced himself. He explained that he had only agreed to teach this class as a one-time favor to the engineering department. He was actually part of the administration. And, he was a United States Military Academy West Point Engineering graduate. Lungs inhaled. Jaws dropped. Other parts tightened. The tension in the room was thick. He proceeded to lecture and in the first 15 minutes of class he covered my two years of calculus, two years of physics, two years of chemistry and any other known science topic I had ever heard about. I scribbled furiously knowing I would have to look up and learn and relearn everything he covered.

After class, in complete panic, I went to the bookstore to buy my books. Think zombie walking! As I balanced 30 pounds of textbooks, a woman spotted me in the book line and veered toward me (older students will remember these lines and how they could wrap around a building. Disney has NOTHING on university bookstore lines!). She ran over to me and grabbed my arm. I stared at her in shock as she said she recognized me (hot pink dress for ya!). I’ll never forget how surreal this event was. She said, “You’re in my statics class. I saw you sitting up front taking notes. You’re smart. You know everything.” I literally laughed out loud in her face. I was almost too stunned to reply. Luckily for me, I recovered and replied. I told this woman, who would become one of my best friends, that I indeed was in the class. But I was furiously taking notes because I had been out of school for years and he just covered my entire academic career in 15 minutes.” Turns out, my friend was in the same situation. Small world. She had graduated with other degrees and was returning for an engineering degree. We talked during the hour in line and she gave me a ride around campus to my car. It also turned out that she lived only a few minutes from me. Kismet?

We became fast friends. And we started a group of Women In Engineering for support. We both succeeded in making honor roll and being inducted into Tau Beta Pi National Engineering Honor Society and Chi Epsilon National Civil Engineering Honor Society. Along the way, we learned that men were not better than women at math or engineering, Asians (or Vietnamese, Mexican, Columbian and Persians as our ethnic mix actually was) are not better than any other ethnic group at math or engineering, and that our West Point professor was only a C level student! This he admitted in our second Statics class after about 25 people dropped! He even taught his method and mantra, all West Pointers graduate with an engineering degree so stay until you think you got a C at least, then leave. I didn’t take that advice.

So, after all that, you are probably wondering what is the answer to the problem that is math? Here again, my friend and our circle of students figured it out. Math is simply a language to understand and describe the physical realm, both static and dynamic including energy. And the secret to learning how to do this is TWO things. First, just do it. Follow the steps and rules (like order of operations etc.) and do not ask WHY! Once I just decided to follow steps and not ask why, I started getting everything correct. The second thing is USE A LOT OF PAPER! Sorry conservationists, you simply must use a lot of paper when doing math problems so you can see where mistakes are. Once I started using a whole sheet of paper and wrote legibly, I could see errors.

So that’s it. Don’t let math be a mental block or a roadblock to your career. Math is a stepping stone. It is a language to describe and address problems and find solutions. Stick with it and you will succeed. When mentoring new STEM students, I always tell them that math is only an initiation. Stick to it and you will get through. It’s not as scary as you think it is.

My advice. Sit up front. Don’t ask why. Practice practice practice. Use lot of paper!

Any comments you would care to share?

If you like my writing here, I welcome your comments and advice for future topics. Bloggers LOVE comments! Please LIKE and SHARE!

Namaste,

Lesley

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