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I was gratified that my diary "Treating Boys and Girls Differently" made it to the rescued list. Thank you rescue rangers! And thanks to everyone who posted interesting comments.  One of the comments was from a mom whose math-smart, pretty, verbal daughter would never join a math team because "math team is too geeky" and full of Sheldon-like characters from the TV show Big Bang. Having been a girl just like her daughter, who now coaches a math team, I had to respond. So follow me below the fractal.

Here is the comment I am responding to:

Math team is too geeky (0+ / 0-)
for my daughter. She is a 99% math achiever, but math team kids are just too nerdy for her (think Big Bang's Sheldon). She also does not like public competition. She is also a 99% reading/writing, which the math team kids are not. She can't get those guys to say one word to her (did I mention she's really pretty too?) She is proud of her abilities and intends to use them in engineering school and medical school (she is also very fashionable with expensive taste). But the stigma of math team nerdiness and the competitions kept her away from joining the team. I bet she's not the only girl like this. She will probably not be a PhD student either. She will be looking to make money, and as the linked article really made clear, University life is not a fast, easy or reliable route to financial success. As a point of interest, I, her mother, am a mechanical engineer, with a career on hold while I raise the best daughter I can (wonderfully supportive husband with good income helps!)

by Southern Lib on Fri Jan 25, 2013 at 11:54:31 PM CST

She is referring to an article I linked in my original diary that said girls are avoiding math and hard science PhDs not because they can't do well in them, but because they have figured out that medical school makes more sense.

I referenced another article about top math performing girls being concentrated at a small group of high schools. Link here. Those schools are clearly doing something different than the school attended by the commenter's daughter. It is like the two chess teams another commenter described coaching. They each have about 50 kids. One has lots of girls, and one has zero, because one had an attractive role model (his daughter), and the other didn't. It created a different culture. Math teams have different personalities as well. But whether your child likes or dislikes the math team available to them, the math involved in the good competitions (more on that later) is simply much better.

The Sheldon's of the world certainly are attracted to competitive math, and are over-represented at the highest levels. But lots of regular kids are attracted too, including pretty girls, highly social boys, and kids who do not care about competing. The reason is that competition math is generally much more interesting and creative than standard curriculum math. Good competition problems are like little puzzles. There may be some counter-intuitive way of looking at it that makes an impossible problem suddenly easy. It expands the mind in a way that leads to better problem solving in general, not just for math problems.

Another difference is that competition math mixes together different strands of mathematics in the same contest, or even in the same problem. It is much less linear that way than traditional school math. A good math team works like an immersion language program. Everything is coming at you at once, and the amount you comprehend increases over time. Traditional classroom math is like traditional classroom foreign language instruction - present tense this month, past tense next month, 50 vocabulary words per week. Math text books reflect this. You are fed little bits at a time, and expected to understand all of it before moving on. Many learners do better, in math and in foreign language, with more of an immersion approach.

Math textbooks are usually written by teachers, for teachers, and in particular, for teachers who may not be very good at math. It is extremely formulaic. Kids who understand the chapter should be able to answer all the problems at the end. Kids are expected to understand the material in chapter 1 before they move to chapter 2. Materials written from a problem solving approach (another term for the type of math the good competitions do) are written by and for people who love math, and throws that out. On your first pass through a set of problems, maybe you can only do half. But as you get experience, you get better and better at it and there are more problems you can do. I tell my kids there is no such thing as a "wrong" problem, only a problem they are still working on. The same problem, or a similar one, will come around again when the kid has more experience, and they are more likely to get it.

The Society of Professional Engineers sponsors a terrific program called Mathcounts for middle schools. There is a Mathcounts competition, and some kids are heavily ino that. But the main point to the organization's efforts is that standard math textbooks and classes are turning kids off at the middle school level. Mathcounts-type problem solving is a vastly superior way for all kids to learn math. It also lends itself much more to working collaboratively, which is an important life skill. Oh, and the problems are all word problems. Kids need to have good verbal skills and use language precisely.

That does not mean that all math teams live up to the potential of the material. Many don't, because they are led by adults who cannot get out of the mindset of a traditional math class. And all competitions are not equal either. The good ones require very deep thinking, and are not just about fast mental calculations

For more than you could possibly digest about this approach to math, including materials, courses, articles, go to the Art of Problem Solving website here . I particularly recommend this article , written by one of the founders of the website. It talks more about the difference between competition, or problem-solving math, versus traditional school math. Ignore the title, it is about much more than calculus. (I have no association with any of these links, btw)

A bonus link, if you have gotten this far, is here. It is an interesting, but very long essay by a mathematician bemoaning the way that math is traditionally taught in schools. He makes analogies to what it would look like if we taught music and other subjects the same way, and how ridiculous that would look.

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Comment Preferences

  •  I was very good at math, but I could (12+ / 0-)

    not figure out what an engineering degree would do for me - or rather what I would do with one if I had one.

    It wasn't until I was in my 20s having opted for Art History rather than MIT, that I met some guys who had gone to RISD's product design school when I figured out that I had missed an opportunity to use my math abilities to create something other than a diesel engine (that was my perception of engineering).  That an computers which at that time were not interesting at all to me at the time - we learned Basic which I mastered easily, but loathed - computer technology at that time was taught out of context of what it would shortly become.  Mostly people sold it on the premise that they would replace people which I found unappealing.  

    Fondly enough, I was rather a snob about calculators - aside from the crazy square root stuff that obviously was easier with a calculator - most math equations were easy enough for me to do in my head - one of the few times I didn't get an A or above on my math tests was when I didn't show my work - my math teacher and I actually still laugh about the fight we had about my grade on that test because all of my answers were correct and I arrived at them correctly - but failed to show the process.  We made a truce which included me getting harder extra problems in my homework and on the tests that forced me to show my work.  I was actually happier being more challenged because I had been getting bored which is never a good thing for me.

    Anyhow, I loved math, but it seemed impractical to pursue it for my purposes because I am also creative and artistic.  I've landed in a business that requires both skills the math and the imagination and I get to "make stuff" which is very satisfying, but I missed out, I think.

    I am a girl, I was popular and pretty, but the geek culture wasn't really a factor one way or another for me - it was more about not knowing how much that would be in line with what I like doing I could have done had I pursued math as part of my higher education.

    •  art and engineering (9+ / 0-)

      The reason word processing got fonts when it did  is because Steve Jobs audited a calligraphy class. The creative, artistic aspects to engineering don't get enough attention.
      btw - MIT is now half girls. The students take advantage of many outlets for creative endeavors. When they have design competitions for housing or robots or whatnot, many are visually very elegant. It would be interesting to see if that is more the case as the number of girls increased, or it was always like that.

      •  I think that they did not have nearly (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        chimene, kyril

        that high a percentage of female students when I was in the market for college.

        Also, I am not sure that the more creative outlets that they seem to have now at MIT are a corollary to the increase in female students - maybe there is one - all I really know is what I didn't know when I was trying to work out what to study and where was what kept me from going there.

        I used to say that I would have studied math if I could have been like Lewis Carroll, but that I couldn't figure out how to do that.  That view got reinforced by ending up going to school in an area that was heavily populated by IBM middle managers.  The people we encountered working at "big blue" were super dull and conservative.

  •  Another alternative to the PhD (5+ / 0-)

    for women who excel at math but want financial security is accounting. I say this because my wife has a CPA, & n my experience many women have this certificate.

    Not to say there aren't attractive women engineers: I've encountered them slightly more often "Sheldon"s in the computer industry. (I don't know if that was simply due to luck or reflects reality; unless someone with poor social skills is very intelligent -- a "Sheldon" type -- they don't last very long in the business. Leonards are far more common.)

    •  actuarial work too (5+ / 0-)

      Or so I have been told. I do not totally understand what actuaries do on a day to day basis, but I think they calculate risks for insurance companies. Apparently it is well paid, good life style.

      •  I know a female actuarian (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        kyril

        She has a great lifestyle- she can work her hours whenever she wants, so she will play golf during the day, and do her work at night (she's single with no kids or pets so that's possible- I could never do it).  Plus she will log in a work day will vacationing, so she can take these long vacations all over the world.  Once in a while she has to go into the office.  What is not to love about that??

        •  Sounds better than a CPA (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          kyril

          First three months of every year is mandatory overtime -- even if they don't do tax accounting. I feel bad for my wife at those times.

          Pay & job security does make up for it. And I've found CPAs are more often hardy partiers than the colorless bores pop culture makes them out to be: I have yet to meet one who prefers a "medium dry sherry" to a beer or Long Island Ice Tea.

  •  lindsey was a mathlete!! (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    tardis10, blueisland, nomandates, kyril

    "...i also also want a legally binding apology." -George Rockwell

    by thankgodforairamerica on Sat Jan 26, 2013 at 09:54:00 AM PST

    •  thanks! (3+ / 0-)

      I enjoyed the clip. But just for the record if anyone watches it and thinks that is what math competitions are about, most kids will never, ever have to do mental math on stage like that. The few who do are the top kids and have trained specifically for that. For instance, at Mathcounts Nationals, 250 kids compete but only the top 10 do the exhibition round. It is interesting to see. Those kids are amazing! That round is broadcast on one of the ESPN channels, like the finals of the Scripps spelling bee. I have been told that the bookies in Las Vegas take bets on both. You can see videos of what it looks like here.

      There is also a scene in Jodie Foster's movie Little Man Tate based on a Mathcounts exhibition round. Some people may have seen the movie.

      But again, most kids involved with math competitions will never do an exhibition round like that. Do not be put off by it and think your child would never go for a math team. For most kids, it is a paper and pencil test. The strongest performances are celebrated. But there is no comment and no stigma for the non-winners. Another way it is different from "school math".

    •  So was Lindsay Lohan (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      kyril, thankgodforairamerica

      (or at least her character) in Mean Girls.

      A most excellent role model to be sure

  •  Grand daughter was worried she was getting an A- (5+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    nomandates, Munchkn, a2nite, HeyMikey, kyril

    in her freshman Calculus class at IU until she discovered she had the highest average in the class.  She went on to graduate cum laude from Kelly School of Business. It took a while to get a job in this crazy sconomy, but she finally landed a top management job with a Big Box Store.  She is a beautiful blonde that is frequently asked by customers to send out the "real" manager to talk with them.  

    •  the "real doctor" (5+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      nomandates, Munchkn, HeyMikey, drmah, kyril

      I went to medical school in the early 1980's. Patients would sometimes reject the senior physician if it happened to be a woman and ask for the "real doctor". Typically, a male med student with much less experience was then sent in. The senior physician was still supervising, but the patient sort of shot themselves in the foot when they did that.

  •  Thanks for the diary (5+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    drmah, blueisland, nomandates, Munchkn, kyril

    and the links.  Much appreciated.

    Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter. Martin Luther King, Jr.

    by papahaha on Sat Jan 26, 2013 at 10:24:12 AM PST

  •  So what is the relationship of (5+ / 0-)

    qualification. Is that a qualifier to say that women can still be attractive and smart?

    This is something that I read and hear all the time. A guy I worked with in an environmental lab said something similar "She was so beautiful and sailed around the world"... WTF, amazement that a women can be attractive and accomplish something... Then there is the corollary that only women who are homely, ugly, unattractive... in need of a career because no male would ever want them ... that depresses the number of women taking up math or science seriously.... I think this is a major problem especially with young women or girls. Notice male scientists are rarely judged by thier looks before thier skills and talents. As long as looks and careers for females are rated by whether a woman is attractive automatically makes study for those careers less important. It implies if you study math or science then you must lack in attractiveness (or if you succeed at the most important perceived female goal of making men want you= attractive) or that it is shocking that you would take up these topics... Add that to all the other barriers and any woman who goes on to succeed in these areas is changed by the effort.

    So I am not going to even get into qualifying about my appearance as a young girl or woman. It sounds defensive and conxumes too many womens time drawing up lists of evidence that they met that qualification (which seems to be the primary value for females... or in other words : they can be nearly brain dead as long as males follow them sniffing)

    .  

    Fear is the Mind Killer...

    by boophus on Sat Jan 26, 2013 at 10:30:33 AM PST

    •  See my comments below (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      a2nite, kyril, kurt

      I think that the problem very quickly (early) can become harassment.  If we start by working with girls at the 5th grade level in math and science --then you will see a change.  This is before appearance issues become a major problem.   With teaching support as I indicated below, girls will be able to break the barrier.

      Think girls on a male sports team.

  •  My experience as a parent (5+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    blueisland, HeyMikey, kyril, kurt, Oh Mary Oh

    First, let me commend the science/pre-engineering department as well as the math department at our High School.  (easton area school district, easton pa)  I can't speak highly enough.  Freshman year, head of science department (male) committed significant time to work with my daughter.  They genetically modified e. coli bacteria with dna from a jelly fish which caused it to glow.  Amazing science project.  However what was far more important, was that his direct influence/input/support is causing her to pursue a career in science.  Her drafting/pre-engineering/TSA coach teacher(male) had the same impact.  She originally was one of three or four girls on the team.  With his direct support, input, guidance, she has pursued this course as well.  The two study areas have come together to support and substantiate multiple areas of study.  She will be attending college next year as a engineering student.  
    As one of very few girls in his classes and on the team, he has been hyper-sensitive to the way she is treated in class by male students.  He has made a dramatic point of discouraging sexual harassment, which sadly starts that early.  Without their participation I can't say that her ability to deal with the boys, geeks (she is absolutely beautiful) would have become as effective as it is.  Their departments, with appropriate support could become models of how to guide more women into these specialties.

    •  Critical mass (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      HeyMikey, kyril, kurt

      is also a factor. It is much harder to be the only girl, or the only boy, in an activity than it is to be part of a reasonably sized minority.

      •  Values; softball vs. cheerleading; my niece. (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        AverageJoe42, kyril

        My niece played softball in elementary school and junior high. She was pretty good at it and seemed to be having fun.

        But when she got to high school and the hormones were really kicking in, she decided to give up softball and take up cheerleading.

        This got her in with a whole different crowd of girls--worried about social status to a toxic degree. Gotta have the right clothes, the right makeup, the right car, go to the right parties, have the right boyfriend...and of course, the right friends. With threatened ostracism if you don't conform to the social expectations of the right people.

        My niece is now 27. Through a great combination of good luck and making better choices, her head is now in a much better place. She has a master's in psychology, is a practicing child & adolescent therapist, and thinking about going for her Ph.D. She now shakes her head at her old friends--so many eating disorders, failed marriages, substance problems, etc. She could've ended up there.

        When an attractive girl says the math team is too geeky, that's a red flag. Yes, it's tough being an adolescent--I remember, and I sympathize. But that's a Teachable Moment, when a parent-uncle-teacher or some other trusted adult needs to point out that the girl is making a value choice--she's deciding to derive her opinion of herself from the opinions of people who buy into rat-race values, instead of from her and her friends' and teammates' work and accomplishments.

        I wish I had spoken up to my niece, about 13 years ago. I thank God she's turned out OK despite my failure to do so.

        "The true strength of our nation comes not from the might of our arms or the scale of our wealth, but from the enduring power of our ideals." - Barack Obama

        by HeyMikey on Sat Jan 26, 2013 at 12:54:33 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •  Either that or the "they're too geeky" ... (0+ / 0-)

          (or whatever) is really an excuse to avoid a competition in which the person believes they're outmatched and can't win.

          "Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity, and I am not sure about the universe." -- Albert Einstein

          by Neuroptimalian on Sat Jan 26, 2013 at 11:04:23 PM PST

          [ Parent ]

          •  She was doing well with softball. (0+ / 0-)

            I don't recall her team winning the championship or anything like that. But they were good enough, and she was good enough.

            "The true strength of our nation comes not from the might of our arms or the scale of our wealth, but from the enduring power of our ideals." - Barack Obama

            by HeyMikey on Sun Jan 27, 2013 at 02:54:11 PM PST

            [ Parent ]

        •  While that is possible (0+ / 0-)

          and Neuroptimalian's "deflection" suggestion is possible, a third possibility is that the girl is afraid of how she'd be treated in an all-male space (especially a team environment). I bet she wouldn't join the football team, either, and I bet they're not "too geeky."

          "Let’s just move on, treat everybody with firmness, fairness, dignity, compassion and respect. Let’s be Marines." - Sgt. Maj Michael Barrett on DADT repeal

          by kyril on Sun Jan 27, 2013 at 12:23:41 AM PST

          [ Parent ]

          •  The softball league was all-girl. (0+ / 0-)

            I suppose that might've been the time jokes were going around about lesbians playing softball, which could play on a 14-year-old's insecurities. Still--value choice--do you give in to your insecurities, or surmount them?

            "The true strength of our nation comes not from the might of our arms or the scale of our wealth, but from the enduring power of our ideals." - Barack Obama

            by HeyMikey on Sun Jan 27, 2013 at 02:51:27 PM PST

            [ Parent ]

    •  Easton PA, is a depressed old coal town (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      kyril

      I'm thrilled to hear the high school has great things going on.  It can't be just the Stuyvestant HS or the wealthy suburbs that give us the next generation of science.

      Take that, Phillipsburg!

      It's not a fake orgasm; it's a real yawn.

      by sayitaintso on Sat Jan 26, 2013 at 04:56:22 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  My beautiful, brilliant 13-year-old (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    kyril

    would happily join a math club, IF they had plenty of social time, and maybe snacks, because no matter how good she is at math, it just doesn't grab her attention the way that people and words do. I suspect that many girls are like her, and that those who want to encourage them to participate more in math have to make the subject more palatable. I'll be checking out the Mathcounts program, as collaboration and word problems may be exactly what my daughter needs.

    "The Democrats are the lesser evil and that has to count for something. Good and evil aren't binary states. All of us are both good and evil. Being less evil is the trajectory of morality." --SC

    by tb92 on Sat Jan 26, 2013 at 02:33:21 PM PST

    •  Mathcounts (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      kyril

      Local competitions happen in Feb. if her school does not already have a team, there may not be time to help get one going. But she could probably enter as an individual. Or you could just go and see what it looks like.

      •  We'll try to watch this year, (0+ / 0-)

        and see if she wants to get involved next year. Thank you for the information.

        "The Democrats are the lesser evil and that has to count for something. Good and evil aren't binary states. All of us are both good and evil. Being less evil is the trajectory of morality." --SC

        by tb92 on Sun Jan 27, 2013 at 05:27:33 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

    •  Talk to her about (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      kyril, tb92

      Technical Communications in an Engineering program.  One of my nieces graduated from the U of Washington Engineering school with a degree in Technical Communications.  She has great writing skills, but didn't like the creative writing courses.  It is an engineering degree.  She is very marketable and didn't have to worry about unemployment during the recession.   She designs manuals, teaches a cadre of workers how to use new equipment or new plant setups and the like.  Sounds like a great match for your daughter.

      •  We'll look into that. Thanks! nt (0+ / 0-)

        "The Democrats are the lesser evil and that has to count for something. Good and evil aren't binary states. All of us are both good and evil. Being less evil is the trajectory of morality." --SC

        by tb92 on Sun Jan 27, 2013 at 05:26:37 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

  •   are we saying plain girls shd do calc? (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Neuroptimalian

    I mean, seriously,  who the fuck on this site is in charge  of playing 7th grade mean girl?

    As one who was not the prettiest,  slimmest, best-dressed, blondest, girl in school,  I'm kinda horrified that this discussion keeps going back to who is good looking.

    If people here can't get past that, we have not got the skills to model equality for our kids.

    It's not a fake orgasm; it's a real yawn.

    by sayitaintso on Sat Jan 26, 2013 at 05:00:31 PM PST

    •  My niece got my husband's family build (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      kyril

      No one would describe her as pretty.  She is highly regarded by those she works with and very much enjoys her life.  The customers she works with are always sending glowing letters to her employers about how much she has helped her business.

      That said, in many ways it can be hard on a beautiful woman.  A lot of men cannot see past her good looks.  I remember going TDY and there the most beautiful woman I've ever personally seen. She was a lieutenant.  I was on the other side of the partition from her.  I could always tell when she moved, because the senior officers' eyes would track her every move.  She was a very nice person and was always comfortable around other women and those junior in rank.   We were never stationed together, so I don't know how her career turned out.

  •  Math dosen't discriminate. It will take the (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    SuetheRedWA

    homely one's as well.

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