Dr. Mom, My Adventures as a Mommy-Scientist

Discussion of my journey from grad school to postdoc to tenure with two kids, a husband, (and a bit of breast cancer) in tow.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Are math and science really that hard

This topic has been on my mind for a while, really ever since my post on answering the question "what do you do?". When I answer this question I almost always get an initial response of that must be so hard or you must be really smart. And I've been thinking and thinking about why that bothers me. And I finally put my finger on it.

One of the reasons that we don't have more individuals (male and female) in STEM fields is that people think it is hard.

Why do people think this? I think it is just as hard to write a detailed, insightful 30 page English paper as it is to solve a differentaial equation. And the creativity required to solve research problems and identify interesting research topics certainly rivals that of an artist. Recently, female science professor chronicalled how her family thought she wasn't creative because she was a scientist.
I think we should start a campaign:

"Science and Math are NOT hard"

[Is anyone else flashing back to that math barbie?]. From now on when someone tells me that I must be really smart, or that science is hard, I plan to counter that opinion as vehemently as possible.

I think that math and science are 'hard' because our culture believes it so. Universities have difficulty recruiting students into math and science teaching (believe this came from C&E News, but can't remember), and there is considerable disagreement over what the proper combination of education and science/math training should be. Many teachers at the elementary school level have very little training in math or science. Many of these teachers themselves believe that math and science are hard, and pass this attitude along to our children. As successful scientists and engineers, we need to set the example. We need to convince others that our subjects are interesting, captivating, and rewarding, and when you are doing something that you love, it really isn't difficult at all.

What do you guys think?


At 5:17 PM , Blogger jo(e) said...

I've always thought that strange too. I always found math easy (In college, I took Calculus for an easy A).

I think the way math is taught in this country often makes it harder than it needs to be. Often students are told to just do problems over and over again, similar problems, until they somehow get the right answer. So they get a lot wrong before they learn the right way, and that is frustrating.

I had a teacher in high school who taught differently -- he taught us to see the patterns. I never had to do problems over and over. Once I grasped a pattern, I could do any of the problems. Years later, I can still do them.

So I think much depends on training elementary school and secondary school teachers to teach math in a different way than it is currently taught.

At 8:06 PM , Anonymous bsci said...

I think math and science classes required good teachers more than humanities. For the most part, you can read books and learn the appropriate material for a humanities class.

For science and math, if you have a mediocre teacher and a mediocre book, the subjects can be very hard.

At 12:52 PM , Anonymous Amelie said...

I think the post you're referring to is this one by Female Science Professor. I always feel akward when told that what I do must be "really hard"... and I suppose at least part of this comes from education. I've often heard parents (of classmates etc.) and even teachers say, well, I don't understand this math/chemistry/physics/.. either, implying that there's nothing wrong with the kid not understaning it -- if you hear this often enough, especially when you're still very young, you probably believe it.
But when I try to say that I don't think it's that hard, people usually assume I'm just too modest... so if you know some good and convincing answer, I'd like to hear it :)

At 4:22 PM , Blogger PhD Mom said...

Thanks Amelie, that was the post that I was talking about. As for trying to convince people that science and math aren't hard, I haven't had much success yet. But I have noticed a difference the response I get when I talk about my work openly, without that twinge of shame or modesty that I usually use. Also, when I outright question the assumption that science and math are hard or that my work requires inordinate amounts of intelligence, the responses have been generally positive. This is a long slow process that really needs to begin at the earliest ages, but you have to start somewhere. I have a neat idea for that, but more in a later post.

At 10:47 PM , Blogger TheBeautyBrains said...

People want to believe math and science are hard, but they're not if you don't mind thinking. On our blog (The Beauty Brains) we're encouraging people to think about the kinds of cosmetics they use and the science behind them.

People are just so willing to believe anything that marketing companies tell them. We believe this is a direct result of poor science teaching. But in grade school and high school no one is encouraged to think science or math is fun. That's why everyone thinks it's hard when they're older.

At 11:54 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

hello, I am a graduate student from canada and also purse my Ph.D degree. I am also a mom with 3 years old boy.

I would like to keep in touch with you and share some thoughts and feelings during my phD period.

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Its as if you had a wonderful grasp on the subject matter, but you forgot to include your readers.Perhaps you should think about this from far more than one angle.

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