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Math, Science, and the Pursuit of Happiness September 18, 2010

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Welcome to the September Teach/Learn Blogging Carnival.

The Teach/Learn Blogging Carnival hosted by Science@home is for anyone, because we are all teachers and learners all the time. This month our theme is “Maths”, which isn’t just about counting! Our bloggers have written about games, materials, memory, shapes, graphs and more. Check out the links at the bottom to find some other great posts on Maths.

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Here is my (perhaps not so) secret. I have a Bachelor of Science degree that required two advanced calculus classes. I wrote a thesis called “Carbon Isotope Fractionation in Deciduous Angiosperm and Evergreen Conifer Plants” that required the use of statistical analysis. I worked for over a year in an astrobiology laboratory setting up experiments to help learn about Earth’s origins. But. The last time I remember being “good” at math was 4th grade. We did long division that year and a boy named John and I used to race to see who could finish first.

After 4th grade, though, math becomes a black hole of confusion and despair. Nights agonizing at the dinner table over heavy text books, learning the same concepts again and again, only to forget how to apply them in the next question. When I worked in the laboratory I dreaded the moments when my boss would ask me to make the most basic chemical conversions. My Sisyphean hell would be to have to do these basic problems over and over–to constantly have that feeling of falling, frantically scrabbling at my brain for anything that seems like it might be related to the answer, and worst of all, the feeling of letting someone down.


As far as I can tell, everything began to fall apart around the time that Proofs came in to my life. The proofs we did in school always had 5 lines, and you HAD to fill a certain step into each line in order to get credit. I can’t tell you how many times I got the right answer and ended up with a zero because I only had 3 or 4 steps, or couldn’t explain exactly what my steps were at all. In my opinion, this type of scoring is a death knell for anyone who struggles with thinking in a certain prescribed way. Every year teachers thought the same thing–getting the right answer was luck, and that was no way to do math. What does it mean, though, when this “luck” carries throughout your life, from basic geometry, to trigonometry, to calculus. My calculus teacher in college was as incredulous as my 5th and 6th grade teachers had been when once, overwhelmed and hoping for something positive after struggling in class I had him grade a long one problem quiz while I waited behind. After scanning through an entire page of work he told me that my answer was correct but I wouldn’t get any credit because he had NO idea how I had gotten it. While I understand the need to work in a linear, repeatable fashion, I wish that more effort had been made anywhere along the line from 4th grade to college graduation to try to make the method I was already good at work better for me.


There is a downfall to this way of thinking, of course. On a multiple choice test when I feel overwhelmed my brain automatically starts scanning the answers for something that looks “familiar.” It could be as complicated as strategically eliminating answers based on what I think the teacher is aiming for (you would be surprised how much this works!) to as simple (and illogical) as picking an answer because it has a 2 in it and so did the original question. After a life time of relying on these methods–as unhelpful as they often were!–I have to really try now not to do it. I finally started covering up the answers of tests until the end, because otherwise it’s like kicking a ball down a hill–once I get going it is hard to stop!


So where does science come in? Well, my friends, wherever there is a difficult subject there must be a reason and a reward, and in many cases science can be the motivation!  One of the most consistent things I have found working with kids for the past 8 years is that almost ALL kids LOVE nature. They love it almost unconditionally, as long as they are exposed to it. They want to look at dinosaurs, they want to look under logs, they want to look at the stars.


Math is hiding in each of these things, and whether we like it or not, we need it in order to learn more about the world around us. Did you know that we can tell how big a dinosaur was based on the size of its leg bone? Or how much it rained in an ancient ecosystem by the size of the leaf fossils? Or that you can tell how fast an animal is moving by measuring its footprints? Did you know you can tell how tall a tree is by measuring its shadow? Did you know that shells, sunflowers, and pineapples all use the golden ratio in their formation?


Even though I am older now and well beyond taking math classes (I hope!), I am finally seeing math in a new light. A lot of this is due to my husband, who helped me struggle through my last college calculus class. My husband is one of the first people I have ever met who has a Passion for math. To him, math is Beautiful and Pure–the original language, the secret to everything.

Basically, he feels about math the way that I feel about nature! Through his patience and his joy I have been able to see math as a gift and a key that unlocks many mysteries.


One of the biggest lessons I have learned from this is that a Love for a subject means you have almost endless patience for it, and that this energy and power can be harnessed and put to work in other areas. By looking at math through the rose-colored glasses of nature, it not only becomes more easy to manage, but turns into something that can actually help me understand the ecosystems, environments, and evolutions going on all around me. Through math I become a better naturalist and educator. Of course, it isn’t all perfect. My stomach still drops when I am asked to solve problems in front of people, and I am glad no one is grading my thought processes, but ever so slowly math is losing its hold on me. Imagine what I could have done if I had felt this way in 5th grade!

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Visit Science@home to find out more about the Teach/Learn Blogging Carnival. Teach/Learn

Please take the time to visit the other participants and check out their posts on “Maths.”

  • Marita at Stuff With Thing writes about meal time maths with the help of our dinner table centrepiece and other food related maths fun 🙂
  • AmandaB at HomeAge talks about numbers, shapes and sizes, who knew that nested building blocks could be so much more fun than just building them up and knocking them down!
  • For Cass at Schooling Choices the car is one of her favorite learning tools. She thinks you could teach a child almost everything they needed to know about Math without ever leaving the car.
  • Deb at Science@home let her kids raid the chocolate to measure and compare with scales and graphs.
  • Backyard Safari is a right-brained person who spent a lifetime struggling with math, but comes to see the light through the wonder of nature.
  • SMMART Ideas is another food learner, estimating with beans, noodles and cereal…and getting a little number writing practice in there too!
  • For Monique at Your Cheeky Monkey, learning to tell the time is an important part of learning for a child, and it incorporates areas of Maths such as number recognition, counting, sequences and general numeracy.
  • Narelle at A Bunch of Keys has a simple sorting activity that can be done with young children using things found around the home.
  • Colin at Super Parents is writing about the discipline of maths, memory, and recall at 7 years old.
  • Deb Chitwood from Living Montessori Now loves all the Montessori math materials. But there’s one material she says is absolutely brilliant.
  • Miss Carly from Early Childhood Resources has a range of different mathematics activities that you can play with your children of all age groups!
  • Ash from Mm is for Me has been having some number fun for little learners!
  • The Planning Queen at Planning With Kids has games to teach number recognition to preschoolers – so they don’t know you’re doing it!
  • Julie at Works For Me Homemaking says it might surprise you to know that maths is heavily reliant on language. Here is a brief discussion of some of the “language” of maths and why children struggling with language development may find maths difficult.

Thanks for visiting our carnival, we hope you find some interesting new blogs.

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24 Responses to “Math, Science, and the Pursuit of Happiness”

  1. […] Backyard Safari is a right-brained person who spent a lifetime struggling with math, but comes to see the light through the wonder of nature. […]

  2. […] Backyard Safari is a right-brained person who spent a lifetime struggling with math, but comes to see the light through the wonder of nature. […]

  3. […] Backyard Safari is a right-brained person who spent a lifetime struggling with math, but comes to see the light through the wonder of nature. […]

  4. SMMARTideas Says:

    Thanks for sharing your insights. Great advice…look to nature to share and apply math concepts.

  5. […] Backyard Safari is a right-brained person who spent a lifetime struggling with math, but comes to see the light through the wonder of nature. […]

  6. […] Backyard Safari is a right-brained person who spent a lifetime struggling with math, but comes to see the light through the wonder of nature. […]

  7. […] Backyard Safari is a right-brained person who spent a lifetime struggling with math, but comes to see the light through the wonder of nature. […]

  8. Your story made me sad. Sad because we have an education system that very often shuts down creativity because it doesn’t fit within the rules. Have you seen Ken Robinson talk on why school kills creativity – http://www.ted.com/talks/ken_robinson_says_schools_kill_creativity.html
    really worth a look if you haven’t already seen it.

    • Thanks for the comment PlanningQueen! I often try to figure out how our schools could be better at working with people who think in different ways. On one hand, I think it is critical to do so, but I also can see how this might be difficult for teachers who were also only taught in one way. I am not sure what the best answer is but we certainly need to try!

      Thanks for the video link–I haven’t seen it yet and will definitely watch it!

  9. Fascinating post – and I loved the cartoons! It’s great that nature was a key for you. I imagine everyone has a way to appreciate math if only a teacher, parent, or someone else would take the time to help them find what (for them) brings out the beauty in the subject.

  10. amandab75 Says:

    I always lovedd the maths but hated having to show working out, especially since I rarely needed to go into long equations to work things out. Long division was the worst, it seemed such a wast of time when I could more easily work it out in my head! I understand that teachers want to see process, but for some it is just a natural intuition to “see” numbers and how they work.

    However, geometry and calculus! When it came to understanding anything to do with shapes I was lost and just couldn’t get it. I didn’t have the same “vision” for it, and it really sucked any love for maths out of me. Give me algebra any day!

    • I can see how writing out long division would drive you crazy if you could quickly do it in your head! My husband grew up in India and wasn’t allowed to use calculators until he went to college–as you can imagine he is amazing at working with numbers in his head. I, on the other hand, was actually taught how to use different calculators as part of the math class, and am really awful at doing anything in my head!

      It’s a shame geometry and calculus ruined math for you! It’s interesting that geometry might be using a different way of thinking than other math.
      Thanks for the comment!

  11. Julie Says:

    Wow, although I can not relate to this at all (I thought in the prescribed patterns – EXACTLY how school wanted me to think), I see how that is really frustrating! I am glad your school experiences didn’t hinder your love of maths and science.

    • Thanks for the comment Julie. It’s awesome that you got along well with math in school–if I could change one thing about myself it would be to be fluent in the subject! To your other comment, what can I say! Nature is such an amazing subject I couldn’t get away from it 🙂

  12. […] Backyard Safari is a right-brained person who spent a lifetime struggling with math, but comes to see the light through the wonder of nature. […]

  13. Deb Says:

    I’m a bit like Julie – I really, really get off on simultaneous equations and calculus. To be able to plug 3 or 4 or 5 equations into a method and solve for the unknowns is jut plain fun. And it is creative as well, when you are given a problem and have to work out which of your tools you are going to use to solve it. Unfortunately before you get to that point, you have to be able to use the tools. It’s a real pity none of your teachers sat down and worked out what you were doing, if you were consistently getting the right answer there must have been something going right.

    I also love nature, I remember when I learned that the Fibonacci sequence is found in all sorts of spirals, it’s beautiful. So in a broader sense, our job as parents and therefore teachers is to help children find what they think is beautiful and work from there.

    • Isn’t the Fibonacci sequence amazing? Unbelievable! I completely agree that you need the basic tools in order to find the later stuff interesting. I was surprised when I started taking calculus just how far back I really had to go and relearn things in order to get it. Once you miss it it is hard to catch up!

      I also agree that as parents and teachers we need to help kids find what inspires and delights them and try to bring that in–your kids are really lucky you feel that way!

  14. Monique Says:

    Oh this post hit a cord with me. I have a BSc (hons) and my honors thesis was “Screening Medicinal Plants for the presence of Ochratoxins and Organochlorine Pesticides”. Needless to say, I’m shocking at maths too and my entire thesis was based on analysing results from the ELISA and HPLC screenings. As you say, love for a subject certainly can take you a long way.

    • Hah! That title is quite a mouthful. It IS amazing what you will do for a subject–I can only imagine the calculus I would have to be using if I had stayed in my hard science field. As much as I miss it and am getting better at liking math, I am sort of glad to have dodged that bullet 🙂

  15. leechbabe Says:

    The pain of being forced to do maths in a certain way at school really killed for me any interest in math.

    • It’s a shame that your interest in math was destroyed in school! That’s exactly the opposite of what should happen. I think part of the problem is that teachers are often taught only one way, and so that is the way they pass on to their students. It is a rare person who understands something well enough to be able to teach it in different ways. We really need more people who can, though! Thanks for the comment–hope you keep visiting!

  16. Good site! I reallydo love how it is easy on my eyes as well as the details are well written. I am wondering how I might be notified whenever a new post has been made. I have subscribed to your rss feed which really should work! Have a good day!

  17. […] and examples he used the first time. I really hated this, and it did nothing whatsoever to help my problems with math. It is very frustrating to be willing to learn in spite of struggling, and not have the instructor […]


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