If You Science, You Can’t Not Math

If you claim to be a scientist or into science, but trash math in the same breath…I’m going to look at you like you’ve lost your mind, because you clearly don’t science.

I struggled with math off and on growing up. (More often than not, the problem was a bad teacher. Gave me great empathy for the kids I taught years later.) I struggled with science classes off and on growing up. (Biology and life science. *shudder*) It was finding my science/STEM field of interest that finally nudged me to conquer my issues with math. It’s also how I came to understand that my inability to transfer my understanding of vectors from calculus to physics meant certain doom for any hope of pursuing my aerospace engineering dreams. I was excellent at calculus and pretty decent at physics…except for the one section I most needed. I even sought out tutoring, the only time in school I ever did. But it was like there was a language barrier that I just couldn’t surmount…when I don’t suck at language acquisition. That always felt particularly cruel to me.

But I didn’t hate math or science. I hated the bad teachers. And I hated vectors. Neither was enough to condemn either subject. (I did take a math specialization for my teaching degree even though I had more than enough science credits to take the science specialization because I didn’t want to look like the giant science nerd I am. How broken is that? I taught at the local science and history museum. I created science programs for them (astronomy, geology, water, and weather, thankyouverymuch). I used physics to fix my biggest problems in the ballet studio…and I was afraid people would find out I was a girl who loved science. Of course…I denied being a geek for well over a decade because I thought I was the least geeky person in the room. I never was, though…)


Smart Girls, Good Friends, and Pretty Dresses

Given my interest in girls in STEM, it made sense that I took notice the first time I saw an ad for the Project MC2 fashion dolls. The way the ads were structured, they appeared to be girls with interests across science, technology, and the arts, and I loved that. Then, I learned there was a series, and binge watched that while I was sick last month. As expected, the girls work together, each coming from her own STEM interests, to solve problems. And each girl is absolutely crazy about her own interests, and in exploring where her own interests intersect with the other girls’ interests. And this is all from girls wearing cute clothes and learning how to navigate the interpersonal skills appropriate to girls of their age. The series has a lot to offer.

I’ve since learned the dolls each come with experiments appropriate to the girl represented by the doll, along with tips for how to continue those experiments at home.

While I was sick, I also gave Liv and Maddie a shot. I’d heard an explanation of how the show was filmed (that involved splitting scenes oddly) that seemed so backwards for current technology. Having now watched the entire series (because I couldn’t stop myself), the show does not support that explanation. (It turns out they actually opted to use a technique from an older show with a single actress playing two roles.) But that’s not why I stuck it out. I watched the entire series because I was fascinated by Liv, the twin I assumed I wouldn’t like at first because she initially came across as stereotypical and flaky.

Except that seems to have been the point. Liv is an actress who has spent more time away from school than in it (beyond what would be required on set). She is into fashion and helping her friends get the boy. But she tends to make personal choices that support her friends and family. And no matter what she may think of someone, she tries to always have a kind word and not assume the worst of someone unless she has a reason.

She’s also been working on a science-heavy show, and has a great skill for recognizing where something she’s learned from the show can be applied to a situation she’s currently in. She helps out her nerdy brother by building the winning Rube Goldberg device in a competition. Taking construction skills she’s learned from her inventor best friend, she leads the other girls in her cast to build their own woodblock car and win a derby against the boys in the cast, changing the storyline in her show in the process. When she needs to quickly learn basketball for an audition, her athletic twin realizes she can use Liv’s ability to see connections and apply skills to use shopping to turn Liv into a passable player for the audition.

Both shows are great examples of interesting girls who are smart, while being good friends and people, while being totally girly. And girls need more opportunities to see that.

Coding and the Evolution of Math Education

Every time someone posts one of those visual algebra problems on Facebook, my mother and I get into a discussion about order of operations. When she was in school, PEMDAS wasn’t a thing they taught. You just solved problems moving left to right. By the time I got to elementary school, teachers were drilling us about our dear Aunt Sally. I’d been teaching algebra for a few years when it finally occurred to me why the order of operations was even a thing (and why it was more likely to produce a correct answer than simply working left to right regardless of the operators).

Similarly, I learned in high school to describe translations through words or some really bizarre shorthand that never seemed to carry over to other math classes. But when I finally had to teach translations to middle schoolers, they were learning a uniform notation that actually made sense to me. They learned to craft a statement that would tell every single point in whatever they were moving where to go to keep the shape. In short, they were learning to write algorithms. (I was so jealous of them. *grin*) Thankfully, I had some computer science classes and random attempts at coding under my belt at that point, so I was able to help them understand what they were doing and why. (Seriously, A’ = (x+3, y-2) would have been a million times easier than all the garbage we had to write.)

At the time, it struck me as pretty cool, because taking a logical opportunity in math class to introduce students to thinking algorithmically has some benefits. First off, it gives them exposure to algorithmic thinking. (Exposure is always a good thing.) It shows them a situation where algorithmic thinking can be useful. And for those students who might move on to code in school or on their own, it gives them an opportunity to start thinking about how to craft efficient code.

All of this was rolling around in my head this morning while I was messing around with Santa’s Village, Google’s interactive Christmas countdown calendar. A couple of days have had coding games using the visual coding tools that are starting to show up more and more in children’s toys and apps. (Seriously…how cute is this coding caterpillar?) I’ve never played with visual coding tools before, so it took a moment to see how what I know about coding translated into these brightly colored blocks. But I caught on quickly and beat the coding games.

What struck me most (once I moved on from how cool it would have been to have things like this to play with in between learning to write lines of BASIC and lines of Turbo Pascal when I was a kid (I’m a little old. Heh.) was how it presents the idea of programming. Each action is a bit of code displayed as a puzzle piece. How you put the puzzle pieces together dictates how your little elf moves. If there is a more efficient way to move your elf, the game lets you know and then gives you an opportunity to find it. (For those curious, it will display the javascript you created for that level, creating the mental connection between the puzzle piece and the actual code for those ready to explore that.)

It was certainly far less stressful than searching through a hundred lines of code looking for that one forgotten semicolon when you’re still learning how to read code. *wink*

But that’s how it works. I learned a long convoluted way to present translations, only to teach a much more efficient, meaningful method years later. I learned to just sit down and write lines of code. Children younger than I was when I wrote my first BASIC program (and I was in elementary school) are learning,”This tile does this. When I connect it with this tile, they do this and that.” And they’ll continue to grow and learn this way of thinking until they’re presented with an opportunity to actually write the lines of code, or read the lines of code, or find other ways to apply that algorithmic thinking they learned through play and visual means.

As a funny side note, I’ve talked a little here about kids learning algorithmic thinking and then finding non-coding ways to apply that to the world around them. The last computer class I took focused on object-oriented programming in C++. A few years later, I took that mindset to develop some interchangeable educational programs for a museum. You really never know where or how you’re going to end up using what you’ve learned. That’s why exposure and general practice are so very useful when learning a skill.

Find Five Friday: Tinker Gnome Academy Edition

Sorry for the lack of post the last couple of weeks. The past few weeks have been a bit crazy, and the blog has been lost in the shuffle. But this week, I thought I’d share some posts I’ve been gathering about learning from playing and doing.

Because…you know…I never talk about those things.

Anyway, off we go!

1. Allow me to introduce you to Sylvia, a kid who loves to explore and share what she’s learning. She’s a great example of what the Maker Movement can inspire, and she’s an up-and-coming role model for girls interested in STEAM topics. (Source: Why Kids Need to Tinker to Learn)

2. Does Lego No Longer Promote Creativity? They do. The fact that the back wall of Lego stores are walls o’ brick proves that. There’s just a lot of money in tie-in materials for movies and games. But a lot of artists and fancrafters have realized they can show their love for genres and properties by recreating scenes, characters, and the movie itself through Lego creations, often pioneering new building techniques in the process. (For good examples, look up Bruce Lowell and Rick Martin. Both are doing some pretty cool things with Lego bricks.)

3. Why You Should Become Curious Today The title pretty much says it all, and the article does a good job explaining why inviting curiosity into your life is a good thing. And curiosity isn’t just for creative and scientific types. We can all benefit from being just a little more curious.

4. Have you seen that Lego ad from the 80’s with the little girl proudly holding her Lego creation? Well, someone caught up with that little girl, all grown up now, and interviewed her on the directions Lego has developed since then. It’s a good reminder that play exists in all its forms without being hemmed in by grown-up gender issues.

5. And finally, remember these very smart words from Rene DescartesEach problem that I solved became a rule which served afterwards to solve other problems. (Just try not think of Lefler’s Laws every time you read that.)

So, there you are. Five more links for you. I don’t know if there will be any of these “link dump” posts during the holidays, and I’m thinking about changing the name of this series. Keep an eye peeled, and have a safe holiday!

Find Five Friday – Girly Geek Edition

I don’t know how things have gone for y’all, but for me it’s been a week. Actually, it’s been a long couple of weeks, and next week will be pretty crazy, too. You may have noticed the blog’s been a little quiet this week. So has the social media. I’m not even sure I’ve done the bare minimum. What I do know is that this week’s Find Five Friday only has four links because things have just been that crazy.

Soooo…on with the show!

1. I have designed jewelry off and on my entire life. I’ve just re-opened an Etsy shop, and was strong-armed last week into a craft show that my work was not a good fit for. But because I have been designing jewelry my whole life, I tend to be fascinated when someone does something interesting with jewelry design, like creating a wearable light show. You can tell from the pictures it’s still a work in progress, but it’s an interesting idea.

2. I’ve also grown up interacting with music. I danced for a long time. I’ve done choirs off and on. In school and at LARP, I even played a couple of instruments. I frequently joke that music runs through my veins, and I can’t imagine not being able to read or interpret sheet music. So, finding out that people with dyslexia can find sheet music daunting was a bit of a surprise. A product designer who has experience trying to get dyslexia and a desire to play music to cooperate has designed a way to create and play music in a way that doesn’t trigger a war with her dyslexia. The Dyssonance looks like Colorforms on steroids, but the idea and implementation are pretty cool.

3. This has been a stressful month for STEM women. In 2013, Mattel released a 2-in-1 Barbie book where one half was called I Can Be…A Computer Engineer. The Barbie line has a mission of trying to show girls all the doors that are open to them, and has come under a lot of heat over the years for the limited number of hard science/STEM professions represented in the line. I suspect this book was part of an attempt to address that. A pair of blogs discovered and shared the book this week, pointing out that while Barbie does design the game featured in the book (girl game designer = good), she then hides behind guy friends to code the game and clean up her virused computer. She then takes credit for both the game and saving the infected computer. Needless to say, women coders and their friends and supporters shredded Mattel, who has now offered a very half-hearted apology for the mess.

The book’s discovery comes only a week after STEM toy developer GoldieBlox announced their Barbie-like action figures. GoldieBlox still leaves a bad taste in people’s mouths after the whole Beastie Boys incident, but their CEO was recently the keynote speaker at a Texas women’s conference where the themes included responsibility and presenting positive role models for up-and-coming STEM women. (I just about spit out my chai when I read that.)

4. While many made memes of the more troubling statements in the Barbie book and some mocked the pink tech and the flash drive necklace, one woman coder created a mock-up of the book (PDF) rewritten to reflect the message Mattel should have put out if they truly want girls to see what they could experience as a coder. The book is heavy-handed, but the message is much more positive.

Also, my inner jewelry designer couldn’t understand those upset about the flash drive necklace. It was completely appropriate to Barbie. But what do I know? I spent part of a season of Pretty Little Liars wanting Jenna’s owl flash drive necklace.


All right, there you go. Four links, but I tried to make up for it in the commentary. Hopefully, I’ll collect five links next week, but we’ll have to see what free time my workload gives me.

The Complicated Nature of STEM Girls in Media

This was triggered by a handful of watchings of Thor. The first time through, I liked it because Jane Foster is an astrophysicist and that fact keeps coming up in the movie. For Thor: The Dark World (which I haven’t seen and don’t know when I’ll get around to fixing that), actress-scientist Natalie Portman teamed up with Marvel to create some sort of program to encourage girls to get involved and stay involved with STEM. It seemed like a great idea.

But a small problem became apparent on further viewings of Thor: Jane keeps saying, “I’m gong to go charging in,” only to be seated on the sidelines by Thor (and her research supervisor, I believe). Her social scientist gal pal Darcy sees more action than Jane does, effectively making Jane a super-intelligent damsel in distress.

It got me thinking about other STEM girls (often my favorite characters) in other science fiction media. For example, Firefly‘s Kaylee is a gifted mechanic, a natural talent capable of directing others to complete mechanical repairs she’s unable to because she’s just incapacitated enough to not be able (which happens with some regularity across the show’s brief run). But Badger’s men manage to get a hold of her pretty easily, and Jubel Early subdues her with nothing but verbal threats while she’s surrounded by tools that could easily do double duty as a bludgeoning tool. (I get that Mal’s cool with her not handling a gun if she doesn’t have to, but when her life and safety are being threatened? Doesn’t quite work.) Dr. Crusher from Star Trek: The Next Generation is similarly talented in her field, whipping up antidotes to the strangest alien contaminants. But when she gets kidnapped, she just sits and takes it. (Actually, she doesn’t. She starts applying her healing skills to her kidnapper’s people, provoking a conversation about Stockholm Syndrome among fans.)

Before you start thinking Star Trek dumbs down its women characters (or that all STEM women seem apathetic toward their physical well-being), Dr. Pulaski (whom I actually can’t stand) also whips up whatever medical miracles are needed. But when she’s infected by a bizarre virus that’s in the process of rapidly killing her by accelerating her aging process, she creates the antidote that saves herself and the other infected people in the area. More recently, Jemma Simmons from Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is a biologist talented enough to be drafted into a secret operation. But when she caught an alien bug that turned her into a ticking time bomb, she spent what she assumed would be her last hours developing the antidote that ultimately saved her life (even though she herself was not the one to administer it because she was busy taking an extreme action to keep herself from blowing up her teammates).

Joss Whedon is noted for writing strong female characters, which we’ve discounted with Kaylee and supported with Simmons.  Buffy the Vampire Slayer‘s Willow doesn’t necessarily sit and take it when something bad happens to her. She takes up arms or starts talking her way out. Willow actually has a different problem: She is shown repeatedly during her high school years engaging in some pretty decent-level hacking to help her friends out. But when the Scoobies get out of high school, Willow appears to leave her hacking hobby behind, preferring instead to employ magic even where a computer might make more sense.

And while we’re on the topic of girls who are heavily engaged in a STEM activity and then drop it quietly for no apparent reason, let’s add one more girl for the fire, because her own path has just been odd: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles‘ April O’Neil. I’m going to leave out April the Reporter, simply because I didn’t care for the original series, and as a result don’t really know much about her. But April from the 2003-2010 series started off as a research assistant in a lab. Unfortunately, her boss is a complete whack job, and when the lab ceases to exist, April doesn’t go find another lab job. She opens an antiquities shop, the shop she has in the 2007 movie, where she’s clearly decided to embrace the Action Girl trope. She does return to her STEM roots, helping Donatello with various geeky projects from time to time and eventually leaving behind a technical corporation. The current CGI incarnation of April has so far tutored a fellow student in math, and sought out martial arts training so she can defend herself in the future.

I’m pretty sure if I had the time to fall down the TV Tropes rabbit hole, I would find that these are various shades of the same trope. It’s just fascinating to think about as we say we want more STEM women represented in our media. Jane Foster is considered a good representation, but she’s not a thoroughly strong character. What is it we’re really asking for?

A Lack of Technical Precision is Holding Us Back

I read the next part of Word Problems in Russia and America. Really, the point he keeps belaboring is that we withhold algebraic reasoning too long. Except we sort of don’t. We do missing number sentences when we’re helping children learn their addition and subtraction facts and processes. It’s not the level of Russia and Singapore, but it’s at least something. A good start, if nothing else. He also goes on (for paragraphs at a time) about how we keep children in simple problems and don’t throw in enough word problems. That’s true. When we suddenly give an algebra student a problem that requires several lines of work, they complain about the work involved.

And as I was sitting there reading it, agreeing with much of it, I found myself not really concentrating on it. Instead, a section on key words taught in place of critical thinking got me to thinking about the afternoon we sorted out who would be teaching which section of the parents’ math seminar. One teacher didn’t get a say in the matter — he was getting algebraic reasoning, regardless, because I felt it was important for any SAM parents (none of whom actually came) to see him in his element, to see what their children were raving about.

That left fractions/decimals/percents and integers/absolute value/radicals for the other teacher and me, and we were both comfortable either way. I let him make the decision, and after much debate he decided to take the first skill bundle. That was fine. I’ve got integer manipulation down to an art after making the videos, and I can rock absolute value just as easily.

His reason for choosing the fraction/decimal/percent bundle wasn’t quite so fine. He admitted he chose it because I’m strict with the kids about vocabulary. I expect and encourage my kids to use the correct terminology, and he felt that made me highly technical and he was worried the parents wouldn’t cope so well with it.

Um…isn’t that kind of the point? To make sure the person we’re teaching, regardless of age, is able and ready to deal with topics competently? I’d never thought of encouraging preciseness as a weakness before, and there was someone I respect as a fellow teacher, someone I usually see eye-to-eye with…telling me that my preciseness makes me a challenging teacher? Grr. Just…Grr!

Book Review- Kiss My Math

I’m apparently slacking off. I read Kiss My Math two weeks ago, and still haven’t blogged about it. Meanwhile, my raving about it has driven at least three of my fellow teachers to run out and read both Kiss My Math and Math Doesn’t Suck.

This time, McKellar tackles integers (or “mint-egers”, as she calls them), variables, and exponents (at the request of visitors to Math Doesn’t Suck‘s forum) with the same clarity and charm that filled Math Doesn’t Suck. Again, the book is filled with stories of her own struggles and successes, as well as stories from women who use math as a fundamental part of the work duties.

My fellow teachers and I are already putting one of her ideas to work because we’ve found her take on the dietary habits of pandas really does help kids handle the order of operations more successfully.

If you haven’t read either book, I highly recommend both of them!

When Am I Ever Going to Use This: Proportions

A few months ago, I started taking an online drawing class because I decided I needed to be able to illustrate my work. With my faithful 5.5- by 8-inch sketchbook in hand, I started working my way through the beginner lessons.

One of them recently required me to construct a proportionate drawing space that could be 4 by 6, 6 by 9, or 8 by 12. Since I like to draw in the top half of my page and reflect on my work at the bottom, turning my book to achieve even the smallest of these dimensions was out of the question.

But I noticed that 4/6, 6/9, and 8/12 are equivalent ratios and they’re all equivalent to 2/3, which fit in the top half of my sketchbook page. I created the drawing space and completed the lesson.

My roommate, who’s studying to be an animator, deals with proportions and scales in her work all the time, especially when she’s laying our her design space or planning out a design. Math has long been her enemy, but she faces it on a near daily basis to make sure her incredible work comes out proportional. It’s a detail she often says can’t be ignored or overlooked.

Think about your day. Think about your parents’ jobs. Look for situations where understanding how to handle proportions would make the problem much easier to solve. You’ll find math isn’t as pointless as you think!

Danica McKellar Promotes Promiscuity Through Math

These homeschooling moms are up in arms over references to boys and kissing in Kiss My Math. I hope they’re keeping their daughters away from anything produced by Disney or Nickelodeon… These moms are headed for shotgun weddings!

I’m not a fan of the belief that girls need a guy to validate their existence, but I accept dating is a part of being a teenager. In fact, I accept that it’s part of adult life (even if I can’t get the right guy to ask me out).

I remember when I was working on my thesis in grad school. My intro was a disaster, and a member of my committee (the education curator, my boss) sat me down and explained how the introduction was like a first date. I’d broken my engagement the year before. I was still getting over that. I was getting more offers for casual sex than dates. I had to admit that I really didn’t remember what dating was like.

But I wasn’t offended by her analogy, either. She was trying to draw a connection to something I’d understand, not encouraging me to date.