“We need someone to talk to the students about STEM. Quick, get that one Hispanic lady with a Ph.D. that runs a tech start-up and teaches statistics.”
At least, that’s how I imagine that it goes when I keep getting invited to speak at schools – elementary schools, middle schools, high schools, community colleges. I never turn down an opportunity, either. If I can’t make it personally, I do my best to see that someone on our staff goes. It’s really important to me that students see entrepreneurs, statisticians and software developers don’t all look like Mark Zuckerberg or Bill Gates.
Regardless of the age, one of the most common questions I get is, “What is the hardest thing about your job?”
People think it might be the coding or financial projections. It’s not that. The hardest thing is designing math into a game that kids want to play. You can’t just use problems that you pull out of a textbook because most textbook problems really suck. (Our CMO is telling me that what I meant to say is that it is difficult to write problems that resonate with student interests. Yeah, that.)
Take this example, and believe it or not, this is a real example and not the worst you can find. It’s pretty typical. Comments in parentheses added by me for improvement.
Mary was learning about decimals in math class so she became curious about how much she used her pencil each day (said no child, ever). Mary measured how much her pencil shrank each day by subtracting the length after she sharpened it from the length the day before (because Mary has a serious problem with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder). Her measurements were .17, .22, .23 , .18. , .25 . Help Mary out by graphing her measurements (or with a referral to a good psychiatrist).
It may come as a surprise to those of you who have never met (or, apparently, been) an actual child, but this is not the type of thing that students in fourth grade generally think about in their spare time.
Here is an example of a problem that I wrote. This is in the context of a game where your tribe is moving hundreds of miles to “The Place Where the Food Grows on the Water”. This is an actual historical event where hundreds of years before Europeans came, the Ojibwe of the Great Plains moved there from the east coast.
This hunter lives next to Small River, which is a six hour ride from where his cousin lives, near Fish Lake. Drag your hunter to the spot on the number line that would be the fairest place for them to meet up.
Having had four children, I can guarantee you that what children ARE interested in often is that things be fair. As with all of our math challenges, this one has a “Give me a hint” button, but I often see the students discussing the question without bothering to click on it.
- It would be in the middle.
- That’s 1/2 way there.
- 3 is 1/2 of 6 so they would each have to ride 3 hours and that would be fair
This is how math really works. It is something you write about, think about, talk about, in real life. There are plenty of situations that use math out there. Just not in textbooks or math games all that often.