How can we make math less scary?

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cjmcjmcjmcjm
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Re: How can we make math less scary?

Postby cjmcjmcjmcjm » Mon Dec 12, 2011 8:17 am UTC

Some thoughts on what I've observed, as a maths-friendly person (yes, I know I use Brit spelling even though I'm a Yank; deal with it).
At my uni, maths is very much so a preparation for engineering and other "practical" fields. In fact, they changed up the calculus curriculum so that it does not follow the curriculum of AP Clac as well. It used to be that doing well on the calc BC exam could get you credit for clac 1 and 2 at my school. Now, the BC curriculum translates more roughly to calc 1 and 3, 3-D calculus being moved to clac 2 and series moved to calc 3 so that the engineering maths requirements can be finished a semester sooner. The CS program also has similar sway with the maths dept, where our school's one semester discrete and combinatorial class has some sections that the prof openly admits are solely for the CS students and not important for what he views for the course objectives. I think that using maths classes solely as preparation for other subjects ruins some of the beauty of pure maths and also further contributes to the idea that pure maths is useless (half of the fun of learning maths is finding out how common it is in life of bragging about how useless it is) and scary.
I also think that some of the problem that some profs (and presumably many more students) have is that they just "get" maths. I have a very similar thing with chemistry. It is largely due to my very strong chem foundation that I got because my (HS) junior year chem teacher would not let me have a schedule without AP chem the next year. However, when asked for help because "you're a chem major and I'm getting a D" or "you're really smart", I have trouble explaining many of the concepts that I just know, like identifying reactions as redox, precipitation, or acid-base. Usually, I just tell my friends the answer because I know they are only in chem as a gen ed and don't care, or they're in it as an engineering requirement and need me to give them enough to pass with a C and everything else in bonus. No, it's not good pedagogy, but it's much easier than actually explaining the issue and trying to make my friends care.
Finally, the "let's see…" approach is absolutely wonderful, especially for phy6. However, one of the profs got "fired" (technically left b/c he didn't make tenure, but we all know better) because he used this approach in class and not ppt slides and stuff that could easily be an engineer's handbook (calc phy6 is also required for engineering, and seems to be thought of as useless by the students).
Yes, I do have issue with the engineering department (and to a much lesser extent, CS) at my school because it seems to be much more likely to make other departments change their curricula than most other departments.
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Fnoros
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Re: How can we make math less scary?

Postby Fnoros » Mon Dec 12, 2011 9:56 am UTC

math is like exercising: repetitive and tedious at first, with little obvious short term progress. i am not good enough at either to know for sure if this changes. I never liked math classes in school, mainly because they always assigned the most homework. i think that if younger students were given more in class time to practice mathematical skills, instead of having to do it on their own time, they would not dislike math as much.

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caisara
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Re: How can we make math less scary?

Postby caisara » Fri Dec 16, 2011 3:33 pm UTC

In my experience, the scariness came from the sexism. I wasn't afraid of the maths; I was afraid of the non-stop sexual harassment. It's why I left for epi/biostats.

The men have to honestly want to change it. I hear that Carnegie Mellon made some excellent changes with their computer science department that made women feel a lot safer there, but I'm not quite sure what they did. But I don't ever see that happening far and wide because most guys like it the way it is.

Tirian
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Re: How can we make math less scary?

Postby Tirian » Fri Dec 16, 2011 5:04 pm UTC

That's definitely an important factor, and applies just as much to students of color as to female students. If the subliminal message is that society doesn't expect you to master math skills, then why would such a student even struggle once the material became what would otherwise be an appropriate challenge?

And then if a student does excel, then you've the buzzsaw of collegiate faculty that can't envision you as worthy of their training. I feel that I definitely saw that at the math department at Carnegie Mellon when I did my undergrad there in the late 80's. (Let me be clear that I have no reason to believe that things were better at any of the other schools in the top two tiers.) But it was also my sense that the younger professors and grad students "got it" in a way that their older peers did not, so I would not be surprised if there came to be an actual desire for a more balanced and affirming atmosphere. A quick Google search embiggens me: the gender ratio has improved from 7:2 in my day to 3:2 as the prestige continues to increase.

Thinking back on the primary and secondary math education, yeah. I think we should have a frank and good faith discussion of issues of sexism and racism in the curriculum, and to work affirmatively to correct injustices that are still prevalent in the classroom and throughout society.

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caisara
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Re: How can we make math less scary?

Postby caisara » Sat Dec 17, 2011 3:12 am UTC

Tirian wrote:That's definitely an important factor, and applies just as much to students of color as to female students. If the subliminal message is that society doesn't expect you to master math skills, then why would such a student even struggle once the material became what would otherwise be an appropriate challenge?

And then if a student does excel, then you've the buzzsaw of collegiate faculty that can't envision you as worthy of their training. I feel that I definitely saw that at the math department at Carnegie Mellon when I did my undergrad there in the late 80's. (Let me be clear that I have no reason to believe that things were better at any of the other schools in the top two tiers.) But it was also my sense that the younger professors and grad students "got it" in a way that their older peers did not, so I would not be surprised if there came to be an actual desire for a more balanced and affirming atmosphere. A quick Google search embiggens me: the gender ratio has improved from 7:2 in my day to 3:2 as the prestige continues to increase.

Thinking back on the primary and secondary math education, yeah. I think we should have a frank and good faith discussion of issues of sexism and racism in the curriculum, and to work affirmatively to correct injustices that are still prevalent in the classroom and throughout society.


I don't think you're getting my point. I'm not talking about anything subtle. I'm talking about overt sexual harassment from male students. I transferred colleges and it was still there. My friends tell me that it's endemic to the discipline. You can tackle the subtle stuff once you get rid of the rape jokes (i.e., social permission to rape women). Having a critical percentage of women in a program does seem to reduce the behavior, and to do that, you have to change your admissions and recruitment policies like CMU did with its CS department.

IMO, the problem with looking at gender ratios alone is that you also have to look at race. Most women continue to pursue math in spite of the discrimination are Asian, and they think a lot of the discrimination they face is due to the intersection of their race and gender (if they're Asian-American) or is just due to their race (if they're foreign-born). It really isolates non-Asian women who just leave the discipline entirely because they're not Asian and can't get the support from that community of women.

Carnegie Mellon's CS department avoided this, but I'm told its math department has not. But it's all second-hand.


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