Calling All Parents: Don’t Let Calculus I Be the End!!!!

In a recent article published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), author Maggie Kuo wrote,

“Female college students are 1.5 times more likely than their male counterparts to leave science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) after taking the first course in the calculus series, new research finds. The study, published last week in PLOS ONE, supports what many educators have observed and earlier studies have documented: A lack of confidence in mathematical ability, not mathematical capability itself, is a major factor in dissuading female students from pursuing STEM.”

Even though I’ve been fairly busy coding a conversational AI and trying to figure out just what it means to be a CTO in a Silicon Valley startup, I’ve honestly thought about this almost every day. Just how can it be that one class, one simple yet important class, would drive any students from a career in science, technology, engineering or math? And why would females be more likely than men to do this?

The article went on to explain the study behind this theory and it has the data to back it up. Since then, I’ve read many different articles and opinions, all offering up solutions to academia, while also trying to figure out the female brain. After spending a bit of time mulling it over, I realized something very important: I’m a female, I struggled with the first calculus course in college, and NEVER once did I think it meant that Computer Science wasn’t for me.

When I was a senior in high school, I decided to pursue Computer Science and applied to three Big Ten schools (I grew up in the Midwest and loved football, so Big Ten it was.) I ended up at Purdue University in West Lafayette, IN merely because they sent me my acceptance letter first. That was the extent of my college application cycle. I also had a bad case of senioritis and despite my father telling me I was being a fool, I dropped pre-calculus and went math free my last year of high school. I loved writing software, but didn’t like math. You see how already my narrative is different?

Fast forward to the next fall and I failed the entrance exam for Calculus I. Failed it. I had to take a remedial math class for computer science majors, which was basically the pre-calc class I should have taken in high school. Worse, because I wasn’t in Calculus I, I couldn’t take the first computer science course in the sequence, CS 180, and instead had to take a FORTRAN class with the IT students. Better yet, NEITHER of these classes counted towards my computer science degree. Basically, I was already a semester behind and I hadn’t even started college.

Yet never once did I think I should quit or change majors. Why in the world would I give up a career in software just because I wasn’t a genius at calculus? The thought never occurred to me. Instead, I took the remedial semester and entered Calculus I, as well as CS 180 in the spring and aced them. The remediation set me up for success. It enabled me to become a stronger student. Four years later, I graduated on time and headed out to work for Motorola. I’d forgotten about the whole thing until I read Kuo’s article. Now I’m wondering why I was so blessed, not because I chose CS as a degree, nor even for the chance of remediation, but blessed because I didn’t consider it a failure. Was I embarrassed?  A bit. But walk away from my CS degree? Never.

Now, I don’t consider myself special, but obviously the idea that anyone would quit a STEM degree simply because Calculus I is a pain in the ass doesn’t equate in my mind. And I don’t think this is a result of academia coming to the rescue, but a direct result of my upbringing.

The state of your mind is what paints the reality around you. Something is boring, hard, interesting, easy, or logical based on your viewpoint. Somewhere along the line, our kids are being taught that math is hard. Or only for special people. It also appears that males are better able to overcome this idea and push through, even if they’re not that great at it themselves, yet females take it personally. As if a lack of skill in calculus means you won’t be a good scientist. That’s absolute nonsense.

The issue probably lies somewhere between societal bias and poor math instruction in our schools. There are plenty of articles that make suggestions for improvements in these areas, but in my experience both society and the academia are slow to change. There’s really only one place where girls, and boys for that matter, can be taught that math is for everyone and that a love of science isn’t determined by one’s ease with higher mathematics—the home.

Yes, home is where the heart is, and home is where the future scientists of this world are born. It matters to me that more women enter computer science, not because I love it, but because this is the career of disruption. We’re in the middle of the transition from the Industrial Age to the Information Age and the end result will be what our children make of it. If most of our women, and many of our males, avoid technology because they see Calculus I as a deterrent, then I see a much bleaker view of the future.

The current crop of Silicon Valley hotshots isn’t too impressive when it comes to using technology to improve human lives, but that topic is for next week’s blog. Right now I want to share a few things that parents can do to help their daughters get past the Calculus I gate and into the rich and rewarding world of science and technology.

1.       Starting 5th grade, get your girls to play hacker/math minded video games.

The first time kids start to hate math is 5/6th grade. I call this Wall Number 1. Honestly, this is completely reasonable because who really enjoys converting mixed fractions to improper fractions and then subtracting them with denominators as different as night and day? Oh, and include borrowing in that, will you? Yuck. Everyone, except those in love with numbers, hates it. Yes, schools could improve the process, but this is the time where parents need to encourage their kids to not judge math as horrible and instead to see it as the practice of teaching the mind to solve puzzles. Puzzle and logic are the keys to science careers, not irregular fractions.   How to help them believe in themselves? Get them to play video games that use math in a not so obvious way. This is the perfect age to do so. Games like Minecraft, Portal Two and “else Heart.Break().” Many girls like these games, so encourage them to play! This is the age when my dad gave me my first computer and I taught myself how to code in Basic. But today’s children can use beautifully written software to play with mathematical concepts in a real way, in addition to the horrible decimal to fraction lessons. Yes, they still need to learn math in school, but now is the time for parents to help them understand that math is not boring, rather it can also be filled with story, drama and problem solving. Click here for a list of hacker/programming types of games.

2.       Starting middle school, teach them to code

You may have done this sooner, but for those parents who have a girl who’s interested in science, get her to code by eight grade. Why? Because this is just before Wall Number 2: Algebra II—the second mathematical course where many kids fall out of the system. Algebra II isn’t easy, but if you’ve had them playing Minecraft since they were ten, the abstract math course might not feel so horrible. But more importantly, now is the time to teach them that good programming is independent of being super smart at math. Should you study math if you wish to be a part of the scientific community? Yes. But do you have to love it or be a genius to code well? No. When I was in 8th grade, Apple donated several Mac II’s to my school as well as the money to hire a teacher. As a decent math student, I was invited to take part in the afterschool program and I loved it! I continued coding in Basic all the way through High School, until I took a Pascal class from Sr. Mary Newhart, the sister of the one and only Bob Newhart. (Yes, this is sadly the closest brush of fame I’ve ever had.) It was an all girl’s class, and even though I didn’t even take pre-calc because math bored me so much, I aced programming.

Puberty is the time to let girls know, that success in programming doesn’t mean you have to ace math. Instead it means you must be able to see connections within systems, to follow the problem down the rabbit hole to its solution, and put the pieces of the puzzle back together. Is this mathematical thinking? Yes. Is it Algebra II? No.

Encourage your science-minded daughter to take a programming class by age 12. If there aren’t any at school, send her to the Alexa CafĂ© summer camp program, then send her to the other ID Tech camps, or anything similar. Girls Who Code is also a great resource. Use summer to be a time of exploring her mind. Take it into your own hands and show her that programming is more than Algebra II.

3.       Encourage them to take AP Calculus as seniors, but don’t make the grade that important

I know this is hard. College is so difficult to get into and many are tempted to just avoid any classes that might make the GPA go down. It’s too bad you can’t take an AP class as pass/fail. If your high school has that option, then go for it. If not, then encourage your daughter to take the class her senior year, even if it risks lowering her GPA. If she’s applying for a STEM related degree, the college will want to see it in her course schedule anyway.

Have her take it, but don’t force her to sit for the AP exam, unless she’s really gung ho. Do whatever you can to support her. Teach her now that her grade in this class, unless it’s a complete failure, doesn’t reflect how great she’ll be as an engineer, or a food scientist, or a neurobiologist. Taking it now will help prepare her for Calculus I in college, there’s no way around it. Every science degree demands it and for good reason. The study of higher mathematics shouldn’t be reserved only for the brightest among us. Everyone deserves to study it, if not to understand the fundamentals of matter and nature. Furthermore, scientists need the mind training—but you don’t need to get an A in it. Probably not even a B. Again, grades seem to make a millennial tremble with fear and our current generation of females tends to be more perfectionist than in the past, but don’t give in. A “B-“ in AP Calculus will be the thing that enables your daughter to go into her first year of college prepared and ready to study. She can get through that Calculus I requirement with ease and then blow on by to the good stuff. There’s no reason she can’t.

So don’t give into the fear. Encourage her to go for it. Get her tutoring if she needs it. Do whatever it takes to show your daughter that she’s more than that grade, that instead she’s a critical thinker, and has every right to pursue a career in science and technology, even if she doesn’t love math.