STEM Workshops Need Some Work

I was recently signed up for an online workshop about STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) programming in libraries. I felt, and still feel, that the space should have went to someone who has little to no understanding of science and math, but oh well. I took it anyway.

Out of the gate I was dismayed. The first week of instruction indicated that it would be a good idea to bring cultural ideas into the mix, like propping up Chinese medicine in a program. I gritted my teeth when I read that. STEM fields rely on critical thinking and real world observations to function. Nothing is taken on faith because down that path lies fallen building and broken bridges and unworkable code. Literally. For instance, there has been study after study on acupuncture that has shown it doesn’t work the way it is billed, that the practitioners rely on the faith of their clients who want to believe it does work. Into Chinese herbal supplements? Scientists at the Institute for Biomedical and Pharmacutical Research in Nuremburg, Germany, took herbal samples and sequenced the DNA inside. What they found was hardly shocking if you’ve followed news about herbal supplements; ingredients, including allergens, are not listed, and some include cancer-causing agents. Basically, the people who create these supplements fill them with whatever is at hand, including endangered animal parts and poisonous plants. Pretending that this is somehow sciency so you can include it in a science program is disingenuous at best, and leaves children with the impression that faith is just as good as real science when it comes to health.

Hint hint it’s not.

A good STEM program should teach children to question everything–then try and figure out how to answer those questions. Which leads into another problem with the workshop–math. Of course, math. Building a diorama of the interior of a library, concentrating on relative size, is not math. There’s no questioning or critical thinking–there’s measuring. The reaction of mathematicians to the diorama has been quite funny; the look of shock and dismay, followed by “that isn’t math.” Neither is counting fake money to purchase art supplies, thought that is an important skill for kids to learn. Math is a glorious world of ideas and critical thinking that you can apply to the “real world” (why is it math isn’t the real world when it underpins everything?). There are mathematics that can be transformed into more easily digestible explanations for K-6, even some recent research in areas like aperiodic tiling. Unfortunately, I think too many Americans are so frightened of the word “math” it would never occur to them to even ask whether mathematical concepts can be digested by kids. Most don’t even realize you can do research in math because math, to them, is a series of numbers, letters, and scary symbols that says who knows what? That leads to acceptance of math illiteracy, which is a shame. There are many, many elegant concepts the non-mathematician can enjoy.

Unfortunately, most people don’t even bother to find out what math is. Math illiteracy leads to idiots proudly proclaiming their ignorance while trying to mock common core math ideas. Yes, the check-written in common core method went viral because other idiots were relieved their ignorance was shared. Congratulations. You’ve succeeded in proving that America is so far behind other nations when it comes to math education you weren’t able to look at ten-frames and figure it out. Yep. You can’t figure out 3rd grade math and you’re proud of it! If it were me, I would have been too shamed to even voice a sentiment.

Let’s liken math to literacy. So learning numbers, adding, all that. That’s like learning your alphabet and spelling. Algebra and it’s equations is equivalent to putting together a sentence. Calculus is learning to create paragraphs, but you haven’t written an entire essay, let alone a book, yet. You usually don’t get into anything interesting until Calc 3. How many Americans make it that far? Considering only 16% take calculus in high school, and since college students avoid it when they can, the numbers are very, very low. How can the average American make any decisions about math education when they don’t even know what math is?

Having good library programs in math can combat this. Librarians can show how interesting math can be, how it really isn’t about numbers, letters and symbols, and how critical thinking skills can apply to areas outside math–like whether you’re getting scammed or not. Dioramas aren’t going to teach this. So talk to a mathematician! Get some ideas! Really, they aren’t that scary.

All in all, this experience made me realize how much further we have to go to adequately promote STEM ideas in youth.

**As an aside: I found it interesting to read some of the articles that popped up in my search for references. People argued about what math students need, based, apparently, solely on whether you’re going to use algebra equations in your everyday life. If that’s your focus, you’ve completely and utterly missed what math is about. This is hardly surprising, especially at the high school level. Several years ago my husband read a study (where? either on American Mathematical Society website or an article in the Journal of Higher Education, I think) on how only 30% of high school math teachers even had a minor in the subject, and that coaches and others who needed a class where thrown into math without preparation. People don’t teach what they don’t know very well, and when they do teach, they teach equations because there is no way they understand the subject well enough to actually teach what goes on behind those equations. I know this firsthand, having been told by the basketball coach who was thrust into teaching algebra at my high school, that girls couldn’t understand math and he wasn’t about to waste time on me–meaning he had no clue, don’t bother him. I don’t see this improving anytime soon, considering the state of education in America.

Schooled in Math

Reading about Fields Medalist Maryam Mirzakhani’s early schooling, when a teacher told her she was not good at math, struck a nerve. I, too, was told that by a teacher who refused to waste his time in helping me understand concepts in algebra because I was a girl, and wouldn’t understand it anyway. The next year in school, Mirzakhani’s teacher told her she was great at math, which was a step towards earning a math degree. For me, during my second high school year, I took geometry. The teacher graciously told me I should have failed, but out of the goodness of his heart, he would give me a C so I wouldn’t have to repeat the class. The school councilor told me that I had a block against math, and advised me to focus on the humanities—a perfectly good girl’s area of study. I dreamed of being an archaeologist, but when I entered college and was told I needed Calc 3 to get a degree, I immediately dropped my dream because I knew I could never accomplish it. No amount of hard work would ever overcome a mind-block, right?

My freshman orientation advisor, a geo-engineer, was absolutely flabbergasted when I told him this. He told me women are just as good at math as men, and urged me to overcome my misgivings and attempt math again. I wish I had taken his advice—but at the time, I did not believe it. The “proof” lay in the classes and concepts I failed. His was one voice against many. It is only years later that I realize he was correct. I wish I could tell him that. You were right. I wish I had been strong enough to follow your lead.

When you’re young, teachers make impressions—sometimes very negative ones. I knew at the time that the men who taught me math thought women were the lesser gender due to their religion, but I still believed what they told me because they, as authority figures, were supposed to know what they talked about. It was not until years later that I realized these men had no clue how to teach math, and really, did not understand it themselves—they were football and basketball coaches. Math happened to be the subject assigned to them so they could remain coaches at the high school. They had not studied it, and that lead to terribly teaching it. They made excuses as to why they could not help their students, and it was because they did not understand the material themselves. This also explains why very little teaching took place in those classrooms, and why we were given worksheets and assignments to fill up class time rather than listening to lectures (and no, they were not participating in Moore-style education).

I now understand how ridiculous my beliefs were. Not only am I married to a mathematician who has helped relieve me of my past notions, I took math courses in college—not Calc 3, but I still had to take them—and I aced them. I got As. I wish that those successes had persuaded me much sooner to re-examine my dreams and go from there, but since I longed to be a fantasy/sci-fi author, English did not seem that terrible of a degree focus. I ended up in a library–a perfect example of the “good woman’s” job that, in many ways, haunts me. I write quite a lot (no fiction publications as of yet), but I wish I had followed my other dream as well.

And the Fields Medal Goes To…

Congratulations to Maryam Mirzakhani for winning the Fields Medal! Not only is she the first woman to win the award, she’s the first Iranian to do so.

Not all are pleased, however. I know several mathematicians who are in Seoul right now for the International Congress of Mathematicians. One woman had an interesting story about an audience member’s reaction to the anticipated announcement. He complained that, since there was now a woman president in Korea, that there was going to be a woman awarded the Fields Medal. A nearby man heard, and said that women do excellent research and work hard in the field. The first man agreed that women do research, but said that the Fields Medal should be different.

Different? How? That only men should receive it? That women can be brought out and shown off when diversity is spoken about, but otherwise they should demure to the real mathematicians—men? That, somehow, the Fields Medal is lessened because a woman won?

Women have a long way to go in mathematics. Great strides have been made, but many more need to be taken. Hopefully young girls will read about her, realize their interest in mathematics is not odd, out of place, or unladylike, and follow the path into the sciences. But, as the Inspire Her Mind Verizon video points out, even in 2014, this is hardly a given, especially when everyone a girl knows may be subtly telling her to follow a career path that’s more suited to women.