How I learned to enjoy science and math (and why I didn’t in high school)

When I was a college student, I took one semester of chemistry. It was my first semester after transferring from my itty-bitty Christian liberal arts school, and for some reason, despite having no interest in science and no background in chemistry, I had signed up for this class. Somehow I made an A. I was totally uninterested in the subject matter. 

There must be a story behind this tattoo! https://farm1.staticflickr.com/537/18393319548_cd981700e1_b.jpg
There must be a story behind this tattoo! One is dopamine and the other serotonin. Photo by euthman, flicker.com

Uninterested, that is, until the last class. Dr. X mentioned various chemicals in the brain, including serotonin.

Serotonin! My brain perked up. I knew what serotonin was. My doctor had me on a SSRI for depression, and my nutritionist had explained how SSRIs worked and what serotonin did in the brain. But most importantly, whatever chemical actions it was doing, it was doing in MY brain. Suddenly chemistry wasn’t some abstract concept with confusing little diagrams of letters and symbols; it was real, it was exciting, and it was happening in me, somewhere below the brown hair and scalp and skull. Why hadn’t he mentioned this before?

I’ve never been interested in science or math. I made good grades because I studied. But science was my hardest class, and math was the class I privately voted Most Likely to Bore Me.

Which is why, when I dreamed up my current WIP’s teenage protagonist, Cady, it surprised me that she enjoyed science and math. It also filled me with dread: how was I ever going to think like Cady? And if she was supposed to be brilliant in those fields, was I going to come across as faking all my knowledge of science and math?

I had research to do. So I started reading. To my surprise, I enjoyed some of my reading. I’m currently working through Here’s Looking at Euclid, by Alex Bellos, and discovering all the math I wasn’t taught.

And I discovered why I hadn’t enjoyed these topics before. My well-meaning teachers had ruined some of the most fascinating subjects possible. How? By forgetting to tell us the stories and the people behind the concepts. 

(In their defense, they had to stuff a lot of information in our heads and were up against hormones, high school melodrama, and our long history of being told the lie that “math is boring” and the equally fallacious lie that “girls excel at language, boys excel at math.” These poor teachers had the prospect of standardized testing looming over them, as well as our desire to do well on the ACT and SAT. So naturally, they skipped the fluffy stories in favor of equations.)

There are people who are intrigued by concepts. E=MC² makes them jump up and down with joy (or at least perks their interest).

Then there are people like me who adore stories. I’m only interested in Einstein’s theory of relativity when I get to hear more about Einstein and less about his theory. The person interests me more. I’m far more interested in geometry after reading about the Sierpinski carpet and the Menger sponge and the woman who constructed a level 3 Menger sponge with 66,000+ business cards.

By Niabot (Own work) [GFDL or CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
This is a level 4 Menger sponge, which is a sponge after four iterations of cube removal. Be sure to click the link and read the Wikipedia article. By Niabot (Own work) [GFDL or CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Why wasn’t I interested in math? Because, in trying to explain the conception, the teachers weren’t talking in a language I understood. They weren’t connecting my interests–language, history, people–with the topic. It’s not really their fault, considering the outside-imposed limitations of the classroom. But it’s still a shame that I’m only now, at age 37, understanding the joys of topics like neuroscience and geometry.

It seems to me that there’s a lesson here for me as a writer. Often, when I communicate with people in real life, I use the language that comes naturally to me; my illustrations come from books and stories, art and history. But I’m surrounded by people who aren’t very interested in those things and who don’t have the same educational background in the liberal arts. My illustrations don’t connect with them.

It makes communication difficult. Sometimes, after a church service, I tell my husband, “It’s like we’re speaking two different languages!” I’m using words in one way (a way that makes sense to me) and other people are misunderstanding because those words mean something different to them. My husband nods. “It took me a while to understand how you think and talk about issues,” he’s told me.

It’s not just inside church, either. It happens in politics, in law, in literary criticism. (Literary critic Harold Bloom has complained that no one understands what he meant when he claimed Shakespeare “invented” the human.) It happens when people of different religions talk to each other and when religious people talk to non-religious people. For example, when well-meaning Christians start throwing churchy terms at people who aren’t into church, it’s unnecessarily confusing. (Not to mention a turnoff. If I ever do that, please point it out to me. Jesus didn’t use clichés, and I don’t want to, either.)

I’m not certain that the other people understand that there is miscommunication going on. So the impetus is on me, I guess. I’ll have to become bilingual and learn to use their language, even if I’m never fully comfortable with it. 

How about you? Have you had to become “bilingual” to communicate with other people in your life? How did you do it?

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13 thoughts on “How I learned to enjoy science and math (and why I didn’t in high school)

  1. Math was never a strong subject for me. In fact, I flunked algebra. But I love the stories surrounding mathematics and read Carl Boyer’s “A History of Mathematics” with wonder even when not fully comprehending the concepts. Great book!

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    1. Oh, Boyer’s book sounds good. I’ll have to try to find it. My daughter loves math, so she might enjoy it, too.

      I remember that story about how you flunked algebra. I bet you’ve never had to use algebra as a judge, though. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I was good at math, but science bored me so much that I often didn’t try, and I skipped the science requirement as an undergraduate. But I am interested in where science overlaps with religion.

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    1. I wish I could’ve skipped my science requirement in college. Somehow, thanks to bad academic advice and various other mix-ups, I had to take 4 science courses. And I majored in English! The only one I enjoyed was astronomy.

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  3. I feel like the odd one out here; I have always found mathematics and science enjoyable, as well as English, stories, and languages. It just so happened that that English and literature were a stronger suit for me than mathematics and science. However, whenever I applied myself (and I haven’t always done so), I generally did well in math and science. I suppose logic, philosophy, theology, and stories were more intriguing to me; but I was never truly bored by math and science stuff. Crunching numbers and balancing equations were tasks that I liked doing; but stories and logic better held my attention. It appears to me that I rarely meet anyone who was really good at both English and math or liked both English and math. I have noted that math is a language unto itself. I suppose I can bridge the two worlds “bi-lingually.” However, I’m not sure if I am actually able to get across to my linguistically oriented friends, the math and science ideas I know or get across to my mathematically oriented friends, the language and literature and story-telling ideas I engage in. I do my best, but each person’s interests can be a check against hearing and learning disciplines not in one’s interest group. I also think I have lived so long in the English and liberal arts world that my higher math concepts and scientific specializations are just not as familiar and well-oiled to me as I would like them to be….

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    1. You are unusual, I think, in liking both. Maybe you use both sides of your brain more equally than other people; a kind of mental ambidexterity. My older daughter enjoys math quite a bit and while she enjoys the reading/literature part of her English classes, she loathes the grammar part. (Not many people enjoy grammar, I’ve found.)

      I agree that other people’s interests can hinder them from hearing and learning things not in their interest group. I’ve found this out the hard way! 🙂 Like I said in the post, sometimes I feel like I’m speaking a different language than others in my area.

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  4. I hated higher science and math when I was in school and it was mostly because of how it was taught. I actually tested in the 98 percentile for biology when I took my GED with no science background, but my teachers killed my interest. The funny thing was that when I finally went to college I had to take 2 science class so I picked geology as one. Bad choice because I had never taken chemistry. I also took math for liberal arts majors thinking it would be easy, ha! The joke was on me. I got a B in math and an A- in the geology, but I had to apply for an extension and I cried a lot through both of those classes, not to mention made my entire family miserable. I wouldn’t do that again.
    Anyway, your point about communication is great, I do think Christians can talk certain ways to people outside of their group that makes people feel uncomfortable and you are exactly right, Jesus didn’t do that. I always think about he made people who were considered “sinners” by the community to feel comfortable and welcome. The people he offended were the self-righteous.One thing that God has made me aware of was my, us and them mentality. The church I was formerly a part of had an elitist mentality, although I don’t think they would call it that. I hate to say that because I was part of this “special” group, it did affect the way I talked to people. Ugh! I feel sick when I remember my attitude. I am glad God is patient and kind with us all. That is all I need to have in mind when I talk to people and I think the rest will take care of itself. 🙂

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    1. I took a science survey type of class and geology was my least favorite of the subjects we studied. Rocks? Goodness. They all looked alike to me!

      I agree that the “us and them” mentality is often in the church. But really, we’re all humans. That’s helped a lot in my interactions with people outside the church.

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  5. Laura, I really enjoyed this–I teach Chemistry and Physics (public high school)–and am fascinated by the stories you refer to. I try to integrate as many as possible into my teaching. I try to give students the background into the development of statements that we take for granted, for example: “Nothing by authority!” The discoveries we take for granted were often seredipitous, rather than the end result of a straight line pursuit. The humor and conflict that many of these women and men of science practiced and endured. The sense of the reality of their humanity rather than the plaster, albeit scientific, saints that we often treat them as, if that makes any sense.

    Again, thanks…

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    1. Bless you for trying to integrate those fascinating stories behind the concepts! I think it would’ve made a world of difference for me if I’d heard some of these things as a young woman.

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  6. Laura, I must add this–much of what passes for education is set on a student’s plate in the context of a utilitarian process–here is the bottom line material that will help you excell on standardized tests, AP Exams and so on. A fair number of my students will begin to undergo eyeglaze when I introduce the background stories–their affects shout: “Just tell me what I need to know for the test!” But a few get it; and it is worth the investment.

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    1. Our daughters started off in public schools, and my husband and I were amazed at how much focus there was on teaching for the standardized tests, even at the elementary level. There wasn’t time for anything other than that material. I’m glad that you’ve somehow made the time and invested in those students who do understand and want to learn!

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