Guest Post: Why Study Math?

Jodie Larsen has a BS in applied mathematics from BYU-Idaho with a minor in biology. In addition to teaching at AcerPlacer, she tutors students on several topics in math.

“Why did you decide to study math?,” and, “Were you always good at math?,” are two questions which we, as instructors, hear on a near-daily basis, and they may seem to have simple answers but I, when I really think about it, realize that that is not the case.  I will use myself as an example on how to answer those questions.

I would not consider myself one of those Good Will Hunting type of people where I come up with complex equations and proofs off the top of my head which I write on windows to confuse people.  Though I find those types of things completely fascinating… I am more of a learner and user of mathematics rather than a discoverer and prover. Granted, I learn it more quickly than many, but my brain just likes puzzles, and that’s what I consider math to be.  Giant, elegant, beautiful puzzles.

Why did I personally decide to study math? Many people can’t fathom that I would want to focus my attention there.  There are many answers to that question, actually. I would say the biggest reason is that I had incredible teachers throughout my years who taught me well and, therefore, inspired me to love the subject and want to do more of it.  When you have great instructors, the subject matter will be more enjoyable no matter what you are studying. I know many students say they hate math and when I dig into why they do, oftentimes it comes down to the fact that they had poor teachers or were pushed through a flawed system for various reasons.  Having good instructors is paramount, I feel, and therefore it makes me want to be the best instructor I can be. I want to instill a love for math in as many as I can. It hurts me a little every time someone says, “I hate math.”. It shouldn’t be that way and I try, every day, to change that mindset for students and when the students’ mindsets start to change, you can see it in their demeanor and in their eyes.  They want to learn. They want to understand and enjoy it.

Another reason I went into math is simply that I was GOOD at it.  I excelled and felt confident and smart when doing it, so naturally one would gravitate towards things which make them feel that way.  To be very honest, when I was about to start college, I wasn’t sure what my major should be as I felt I needed to know what I wanted to BE when I grew up and then tailor my major to that career.  I had no idea what I wanted to be, actually, which was a little scary. I declared math to be my major as I loved it, and I knew it was applicable in so many fields so I ended up studying applied mathematics for my major and biology as my minor and the subjects are so beautifully harmonious together that I thoroughly enjoyed all my classes.

Was I always good at math?  Well, that’s a complex question.  I’ve already addressed it a bit above, but really, it was simply that I caught on quickly and had fun doing so; however, I did need to be taught… by excellent teachers. Students sometimes think that we came out of the womb being math geniuses, but I had to be taught like everyone else. The difference is, I thoroughly enjoyed it and chose to make it my field of study.  I hope that, through our course, students will discover they enjoy math as well when they understand it, and THAT is the ultimate key.  “I like it when I get it!!!”

What is the moral to this passage?  Other than just giving my personal history, I think it can be wrapped up into the following:  I have a profound love of math because of excellent teachers and my |mindset| (positive mindset for those not familiar with absolute value notation).  I, and my colleagues, aspire to create a love, or at least an appreciation, for math and to assist students in seeing how it can be applied and in what instances.  The ultimate compliment is when we hear a student exclaim that they like math, even though they may look around guiltily like it’s some sort of taboo thing to admit.  🙂

Don’t be scared of math – embrace it in it’s beauty and complexity and know you accomplished something great by mastering it.

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