She Loves it, He Fears it: The Story of Two Math Students

Teen photo for MC articleThis brief but powerful story will change the way you think about math. Math students fall into two categories: Those who love it and those who fear it. This story of two students’ journeys reveals how MATHCOUNTS fills a critical void – for our students, and our society.

HER LOVE OF MATH
It started with a love of math…an affinity for solving problems…an intrinsic desire to meet challenges.

It was a deep-rooted and hard-wired love, a love that would color every experience she had with the world. It was a love with limitless potential. It could manifest itself in thousands of ways. It could be channeled into a discovery that could potentially change the world by helping mankind to be more efficient or more sustainable.

For her, math class was a sanctuary, a place where she could be herself, where she could succeed and shine and lead by example. Math class is a place where her hunger for solving problems was welcomed, encouraged.

But math class was never quite enough. She left feeling energized but wanting more. She hadn’t been sufficiently challenged, not by any fault of her teacher, but because she had a special kind of love for numbers that needed extra time, attention and care. But where could she turn, in a society that shrugs off mathematical deficiencies, where an inability to do math can be laughed off, where the importance of math has been diminished or underestimated?

At the urging of her math teacher, she attended an after-school meeting of the MATHCOUNTS Competition Series team. She found complex problems to solve and a mentor who helped her work through those problems. She found a support network of students wired like she is. They are curious, inquisitive; they are fixers and problem solvers.

The problems she solved were not detracting from her schoolwork or serving as a diversion. They were making her a better problem solver. They were making her more confident in her abilities, more sure of her passions. With her newfound confidence, she was eager to see how she stacked up against the best in the country. She may not know it, but as she advances to the chapter competition and looks forward to the state contest, she will compete against the minds that will one day lead the nation.

The experience of competition cannot not be replicated in the classroom. Even during a high-stakes test, the thrill of solving a problem in a race against both the clock and other brilliant minds cannot be simulated. It’s the kind of activity that changes the shapes of brains, the trajectory of lives.

Maybe she will make it to the nationals, maybe she won’t advance past the state competition; maybe she will compete in a rigorous chapter bout. It doesn’t matter how far she goes, because now she knows what it takes. And now that she knows what it takes, there’s no turning back. The world has become a problem to solve—a problem that can be solved.

Challenge-hungry and seeking new ways to solve problems, she turned to the Math Video Challenge. She partnered with her teammates from the Competition Series and they used their collective intelligence and creativity to solve the most difficult MATHCOUNTS problem they could find. The problem was hard; finding ways to express the problem-solving process visually was harder. She immerses herself in the project. She was challenged. She was happy. And when she showed the finished product to her classmates and friends, she was proud.

Her journey began with a love of numbers, but where will it take her? To Google? To the Pentagon? To a laboratory at MIT? To an after-school meeting of problem solvers at an inner city school in New York, helping students with a love of numbers realize exactly what it is about them that makes them special? Helping students like herself realize that their love of numbers should never be compromised, and that math can take them anywhere?

HIS FEAR OF MATH
It started with a fear of math…a fear of failing…a fear of feeling inadequate.

It was a deep-rooted and hard-wired fear, a fear that colored every learning opportunity he had. It was a fear that, if unaddressed, would have severely limited his possibilities. It was an unnecessary fear, one that had to be extinguished.

For him math class was a place of anxiety and ridicule – one more avenue through which he might display his inability to make the right decision, one more place where he might execute his ignorance.

But one day, all of that began to change. Through the Math Video Challenge, he was presented with a new “in” to math. The Challenge provided him an opportunity to approach math from a position of strength—his ability to tell a story visually—rather than weakness. He partnered with a few classmates and together they shot a video that solved an interesting math problem. He was energized by the project and his fear of math began to diminish. Over the course of shooting and editing the video, he formed a strong friendship with his classmates, who helped him understand that math didn’t have to be a source of anxiety.

The video was selected as a finalist and would be shown at the MATHCOUNTS National Competition. He had been chosen. He and his family and his three teammates flew out to the National Competition. It was their red carpet premiere, their hour in the spotlight. It was an experience that would have been impossible to replicate in the classroom. It didn’t matter if their video won or lost. He had made it. And now that he has made it, there is no turning back.

His pride in his accomplishment and his excitement at having his talents recognized gave him a new-found sense of confidence, one that he had never associated with math before. The barriers to his engagement in math had fallen, replaced with an intrinsic desire to build on what he had accomplished, to make up for lost time.

When he returned to school he joined The National Math Club. He was welcomed by students of all skill sets, all of them bonded together by their enthusiasm for solving problems. Week by week, month by month, he became a better problem solver, a more confident student. His love for problem solving and his fearlessness were a potent combination. He was no longer defined by his deficiencies or his fears, but by the fact that he overcame them.

Where will his confidence and problem solving skills take him? To Hollywood? To a career as a graphic designer or an engineer? To a television studio or a news organization? Or maybe to a middle school classroom, to encourage a student that needs someone to say, “You can do this; you don’t have to be afraid…”

The Bottom Line…
Some students, like the boy described here, fear math; others, like the girl, love it; still others are indifferent or apathetic or have been told that math doesn’t play an important role in everyday life. We understand that there is no single type of math student, and there is no single path to math. MATHCOUNTS provides a place and a program for every kind of math student. Because in the end, it all comes back to the student.

This story was adapted from “The Story of MATHCOUNTS”, prepared by the National MATHCOUNTS Foundation.

HOW YOU CAN HELP:
Please help MSPE to continue our grass-roots support of the national MATHCOUNTS program for students here in Massachusetts. Since MATHCOUNTS is funded at the state level solely by local contributions, this vital program relies heavily on donations of 1) volunteer time and talent, and 2) tax-deductible contributions of money, gift cards, and supplies (any amount is appreciated).

The national spotlight is turning to Massachusetts as the National MATHCOUNTS Competition will be held in Boston in May 2015.

To learn more about MATHCOUNTS in Massachusetts, or how to participate as a volunteer or sponsor, visit www.mspe.com/math-counts.

VOLUNTEERS NEEDED – No experience is necessary:
A new Chapter Coordinator is needed for the MetroWest Chapter of MATHCOUNTS, currently based in Weston. This person would begin by assisting and training with the chapter’s current coordinator during this 2014-2015 school year, and then become the Chapter Coordinator for the next school year. If you or anyone you know would like to know more about this role, or about how to participate as a volunteer or sponsor, please contact John Hayden, P.E., MA State Coordinator, or 781-221-1198. Also, visit the national website.