Making Math & Science Cool Isn’t Impossible and Here's How to Do It

You Can’t Be What You Can’t See

Making math fun for all kids |

When I was in Grade 11 I failed math twice. Twice. Now, this didn’t happen because I wasn’t a math person – but instead because I was taught that there was such a thing as a ‘math person’ in the first place. Surrounded by people who believed I was incapable because I didn’t fit a deeply ingrained stereotype – I barely stood a chance. But I made it, and now I am determined to make sure that my narrative never becomes anyone else’s story.

I was what you might call an ‘artsy kid,’ if you want to talk stereotypes. I chain smoked cigarettes; the only class I was passing, or even trying in, was art; I was saving up all the money I had to flee to Hollywood to become the next big thing; and I truly believed I was destined to marry Keanu Reeves despite the fact that he was twice my age (maybe more) and had no clue that I even existed.  When I failed math the first time, it was because I was totally bored in math class, never paid attention, and no one ever paid attention to me, because of course it made sense that the whacko artsy girl was failing math.

When I failed math the second time, it was because I was convinced that I sucked at math – therefore I never even bothered to try. My teachers weren’t interested in someone who wasn’t interested, but more importantly – I could tell that they didn’t believe in me, that I didn’t fit their mold of what it meant to be a capable ‘math person.’ I didn’t show up to things on time, I didn’t have organized notes, I was way too social and talkative and I was a girl with pink streaks in my hair. Not exactly your typical Good Will Hunting, so to speak.

As supportive as my parents were – and they really were – they drew the line at my whole I-don’t-need-an-education-to-marry-that-hunk-from-Speed attitude, and after failing math (and barely passing the rest of my courses) for the second time, they decided that the following year I would be attending the suspicious alternative school in the neighbourhood. Let me tell you – this place was heaven. The entire school comprised 100 students, everybody smoked – so much so that we had 5 minute SMOKE breaks between classes, teachers were to be addressed by their first names, and most importantly – every stereotype you could imagine was broken within those walls.

On the first day of math class when I decided to tell my math teacher, Ewa, that I wasn’t a ‘math person,’ she looked at me like was totally insane. Then she glared at me. Then she smacked her meter stick on my desk (in a loving way) and told me that no such thing existed and to give the whole thing a solid effort. And so I did. I ended that year with a 99% in math. The following year was no different – I got 99% in all three of my final math classes, and went on to a Commerce program, achieving 100% in first year calculus. As it turned out, Ewa had changed my entire life – and that was just the beginning.

All of a sudden I was good at math. To me, that meant that I could do absolutely anything. If something I had believed my whole life to be beyond my reach was suddenly within my grasp, what else could I do?! I finished my commerce degree, enrolled in teachers college, and met a variety of people along the way who told me I ‘didn’t look like a math teacher’, and one who even asked me ‘what a pretty girl like me was doing becoming a math teacher?’ I started to get the feeling things hadn’t changed much since, like, 1942. I met hundreds of students in my classes – mostly girls - who had decided, much like I had, that they weren’t ‘math people.’ I decided to head to UBC to do my Masters in math education, pop culture and women’s studies to figure out what the heck was going on.  My thesis was titled “Imagining a World Where Paris Hilton Loves Math” and my findings were frightening: we were all screwed.

Okay so I’m being a tad dramatic – we weren’t all screwed, and we still aren’t – but we have a lot of work to do, that’s for sure! My researched focus on the media – after all, I had been a product of Movies, celebrities and teen magazines just like the best of them. Keanu Reeves was like, my LIFE – need I say more? But I wasn’t the only one. All of those kids in my classes when I was in high school and all of those kids in my classes when I taught high school were products of obsessive media consumption. The truth? The media tells us that ‘math people’ exist – and that no one wants to be like them.

Good Will Hunting, A Beautiful Mind, The Imitation Game – Hollywood tells us that ‘math people’ are totally INSANE! Like, really really crazy. Sure Lindsay Lohan’s Cady Heron wasn’t crazy, but she needed to hide her math savvy completely in order to fit in with the cool girls, just like every other nerdy girl in every other classic teen flick. What kid grows up aspiring to be the one that needs a makeover to fit in? Um, no kid. The fact is, that you can’t be what you can’t see. If kids aren’t given the opportunity to see diverse, cool, fun, interesting people who simultaneously enjoy math and science – they truly begin to believe that being one of those people isn’t plausible; that those people don’t and can’t exist – that it’s not even an option.

So who cares? People often ask me why it matters that fields like engineering and computer science lack diversity. Who cares? Maybe girls just aren’t as interested as boys, maybe it’s as simple as that, right? Or maybe it’s not. Maybe it’s that girls – and many other kids that don’t fit the traditional “math person” stereotype - are legitimately not given the choice to identify as scientists, engineers, and mathematicians. Say what you will, but they should at least be given a choice. And that’s why I started The Math Guru.

The fact that we all know what we mean when we say the words “popular” or “geek” illustrates just how pervasive media messaging is. Even if we don’t believe it to be true, I bet you we all picture the same crazy-haired dude with a pocket protector when we hear the word “mathematician!” It seems like a harmless thing, but really, it goes to show how effective the media is in getting under our skin. As we get older, at the very least we have the ability to decode media messaging and to understand that these are stereotypes and that we can fight against them. But kids don’t have that ability – they look to these stereotypes the same way they use role modeling – to define and redefine themselves.

The Math Guru is a space that defies all stereotypes of what it means to “do math and science.” Colourful pillows from India cover the couch, the walls are lined with framed calculators in the most hipster fashion, and fairy lights are EVERYWHERE. We light incense, sip iced tea out of fancy schmancy crystal goblets (thanks to my grandmother), and talk about how crappy it feels to be convinced you’re bad at something when you’re actually not. Oh and of course we do math and science – and lots of it!

At The Math Guru, all of our tutors like a million things – math and science only being two of those things. All of them think that math and science are cool, I mean, why wouldn’t they be? Our goal is to teach math, to instill confidence, and to inspire kids to dig deep and figure out who they want to be – not who they have been told to be. Every day I meet kids who have been beaten down by stereotypes that make them feel ashamed for even entertaining the idea to take an interest in STEM. I was speaking at an Engineering conference the other day, and a Grade 9 girl told me she had to lie to her friends about where she was going so that they didn’t make fun of her! That is insane! The playing field needs a makeover, and it’s up to us to make sure that our kids grow up denying and defying these stereotypes that threaten to define them. We all have the power to empower – here are some of the ways in which you can help change the game!

Dish on Disney

Have you ever thought about how whack it is that The Little Mermaid’s Eric is totally in love with Ariel despite the fact that she can’t speak?! Sure kids love their Disney – and you should too! Why? Every Disney flick is the perfect opportunity to unpack messaging about gender equality and societal sexism. Check out this amazing infograph on the ratio of male vs female dialogue as a starting point – ask your kids if they’ve noticed, and why they think that male characters speak so much more than their female counterparts!

Play Detective

Give your kids a project! Ask them to research mathematicians in movies, or characters who talk about math in their favourite TV shows. Challenge them to choose all of their favourite Disney characters, and to write little bios on them. Take a close look – what kind of gender ratios are we looking at? What differs in their description of their favourite male vs female characters? All of these can be used as talking points to talk about more systemic issues regarding how your child feels about math, science, and the importance of intelligence overall!

Real Talk With Your Children

Kids love feeling like grown ups, so start a grown up conversation with them! Sit down with them and ask them about the kids in their classes. Who likes math, who likes science, who’s good at what, how do they feel about all of the above? Explaining the idea of intelligence-stereotyping at a young age means that it’s more likely that they will choose to deny and defy such stereotyping. Kids need help unpacking just like we all do.

Have another strategy to debunk STEM stereotyping, or have you tried one of the above? I would love to hear about it! Talk to me at [email protected].  It takes a village – together we can change the game!

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Vanessa Vakharia is the Founder and Chief Inspiration Officer of the Math Guru. She is a teacher with a Bachelor of Commerce, a degree in Graphic Design and a Masters degree in Mathematics Education. Born and raised in Toronto, 34 year old  Vanessa attended the University of Guelph, D’Youville College, Humber College and the University of British Columbia. She is recognized as a leading expert and published author in the field of Youth Engagement and Education. She specializes in teen engagement in STEM, with a specific focus on engaging young women to embrace STEM as a part of their fluid identities.