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Math Isn’t Nearly as Hard as We Think It Is November 12, 2011

Posted by Peter Varhol in Technology and Culture.

The gender and racial diversity in Silicon Valley has been making the news lately, both for a lack of transparency and an apparent lack of diversity.

I have no strong opinion on whether Silicon Valley, with its clear need for science and math knowledge, should or even can reflect the diversity of a more general workforce.  But I do have a strong opinion on science and math skills in general, and the education needed to develop those skills.

Let me tell you my own story.  I have a masters degree in mathematics.  The road to that degree, and to my subsequent participation in the technology and computer software industries, is worthy of description.  I started failing to understand mathematics at high school calculus.  Because I was otherwise a top student, I graduated with some level of honors anyway.

That model simply didn’t work in college, and I failed miserably at both integral calculus and physics (I seemed to have half a handle on derivative calculus).  Still, I loved science and math as an ideal, even if I seemed woefully incapable of learning their practice.

Later in college, I discovered that I had a pretty good memory (really good, in fact), and memorized my way to high honors in both psychology and biology/chemistry.

Fast forward several years.  I obtained a masters in psychology, and was a generic administrator for the Air Force, soon to be assigned to duty as an ROTC instructor at a university.  I had never forgotten my love of math and science, so as I prepared to move to accept my new assignment, I
enrolled in a masters program in applied mathematics.  I wasn’t immediately accepted, of course, but I would be given the opportunity to fail.

The summer before I started, I got out my old calculus books and bought a couple of Schaum’s workbooks, and taught myself calculus.  I worked hard, but it was my own pace, and by the time I started my classes I had a moderate level of confidence in the preparatory material.  And it worked; I wasn’t a top student, but three years later I had passed 45 credit hours and had an MS in applied mathematics.

My point is that anyone can learn just about anything.  It takes a certain amount of purpose and dedication, and a belief that you can do it.  All too many people leave our school systems with the firm belief that they can never do math and science.  A big part of that is the inability of many teachers to understand and communicate the topics, but students lack a fundamental belief in their abilities.

Math and science aren’t more difficult than other topics, but they do require practice, and they can’t be faked.  Those requirements may exclude some who don’t want to put in that kind of effort, but these subjects aren’t out of the reach of just about anyone who is in college.  Really.



1. immolator - November 14, 2011

This is really good to know 🙂 I am encouraged.

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