Monday, April 4, 2016

FIRST Women in STEM Reception 2016, Part IV, Closing

Xan Black
Xan Black, presented this enjoyable, informative, and inspiring presentation at the end of the FIRST Robotics Competition's FIRST Women in STEM Reception on March 24, 2016. She shared her own journey through STEM, stories of mathematicians, and encouragement. 

Fascinated, we requested her materials. Black, a former practicing professional engineer and teacher, is the highly creative, witty, and dynamic program director for the Oklahoma Innovation Institute’s Tulsa Regional STEM Alliance, which is changing how we teach, present, and regard STEM all over Oklahoma as well as motivating more Oklahoma youth, especially young women, to pursue STEM careers.


Photo of GTO
On a cool fall afternoon in 1978, I headed home from Midland Community College in the weathered 1967 GTO that my mom had handed down to me. I had just wrapped up a mud lab that was required of all petroleum technology students and was hurrying home to change and get to my part-time job. As I was driving along, I heard a terrible noise and saw my right front wheel shoot across three lanes of traffic into the adjacent and fortunately mostly empty parking lot where it rolled and twirled to a lifeless stop. I got out of the car and found that indeed my mom’s car had jarred to rest on the front axle. I was so overwhelmed and discouraged that I closed the door to the car and walked home. I remember thinking,“Great! Here’s one more thing that I don’t understand and can’t do anything about!” I wasn’t strong or fleet enough to get my wheel back across the busy street. I had no idea how to get the wheel back on the axle hub – so I just began to walk home.

Photo of  the West Texas Landscape
At that point in my life, one overarching theme would have been despair. I was the first person in my family to attend college. I worked too many hours per week to help my single mom make ends meet for me, my brother and sisters. I was one of one or two females in most of my classes. I was a good, hard-working student but by no means brilliant.  Working my way toward a Petroleum Engineering degree required a steady diet of ever increasingly rigorous coursework.

Some of the bright spots in my college years, and there were many, were my professors.  One in
particular was Dr. Ralph Long, my mathematics professor at Midland Community College. The poor man had the distinction of leading me through Calc I, Calc II, Calc III, and Differential Equations. I still remember his explanations of some complex concepts of those topics, but the thing I really remember were the stories he would tell! He frequently began lessons or units with the story of the mathematician who had done the work to discover the ideas we would be exploring.  He made us laugh and wonder at the mad, normal, inspiring, and sad men and women who had pioneered the work upon which we were embarking. Hearing their stories really helped us even if only to think, “I may be nuts, but I’m not as crazy as he/she was!” It also gave us a hook to hang everything else that he would say on. 

I’m sad to say that I have forgotten a lot of the mathematics that Dr. Long taught me, but I haven’t forgotten how he used stories to engage students in mathematics. In fact, after an eight-year run as a petroleum engineer, I eventually found myself standing in Dr. Long’s shoes, striving to find a way to get fifth hour Algebra II class to care about the quadratic formula. It’s a terrifying thing to stand before a classroom of students and know beyond a shadow of a doubt that they start out seeing absolutely no relevance to the things you are on a mission to share. 

One resourceful tool that I borrowed from Dr. Long is that I’ve made it a practice to begin math and physics lessons whenever possible with the stories of the men and women who were the first poets of mathematics. Stories talk us, especially students, down from the ledge of apathy by answering the big “Why?” If all that math is is an irrelevant compilation of extremely difficult abstract concepts that some truly twisted person generated at some point in the past – because, well, after all, we need something to fill up the afternoons in the math wing – then we as math students and math teachers are of all people most to be pitied.  If there is no relevance, then it is an intelligent decision to reject rigor with vigor!

These stories breathe life into mathematics. Through stories, we touch the relevance, the fabric, the context, the real world landscape in which mathematics was planted. I share Dr. Long’s stories and more of the zany, interesting and inspirational women and men who gave their lives to teaching us the language of mathematics. In a way math stories saved me as a fledgling petroleum engineering student, they rescued me as a beginning high school math teacher, and they continue to reward me as I work to engage and inspire students of all ages in a wide variety of settings.

Xan's Stories of Famous Mathematicians

Last summer I had the opportunity to work on some professional development with some really inspiring teachers in Osage County.  Our topic was measurement so I just couldn’t resist sharing the story of Thales, a Greek mathematician who appeared on the world stage in 624 BC.  He did astounding things like predict a solar eclipse, anticipated a bumper crop of olives, bought up all the olive presses in town and rented them out to his countrymen at a slightly elevated price – first to ever dabble in oil futures! He was also the first of the Seven Sages or wise men of Ancient Greece. Bummer, you are the First of Seven Sages – it’s like a rock group only cooler – and no one actually knew that he would be the first of the Seven Sages until much too late.  He admired the “rope pullers,” or surveyors of Egypt.  I don’t know about you, but I don’t think “rope pullers” was a very flattering term.  Nonetheless, knowing they were very good at two-dimensional geometry, or surveying, he went to Egypt to learn from the “Rope Pullers.”

Meanwhile, back on the ranch, the Great Pyramids had stood for more than a thousand years, and every night at dinner, the same question came up right? “Papa, how tall are the Great Pyramids?” And night by night, year by year, no one had yet figured out how to tell how tall the Great Pyramids were!  So along comes Thales, the most hated kid on the playground – for sure. He walks out onto the plane surrounding the pyramids, and says “Oh, you would like to know how tall the pyramids are?" Wait for it. Using his sweet knowledge of similar triangles, he waits until his shadow is the same length as his height, and says “Now measure the length of the shadow cast by the pyramid and that tells you how tall it is!” Cloaks tearing, abacuses flying, teeth gnashing!

It turns out that whole similar triangle thing came in handy for figuring out the distance to enemy ships from the beach, which was a real and relevant problem for the Greeks. Can you imagine before Thales' work ? “You there! Jimmy!  Swim out to the enemy ship, and if you make it back, tell us how far out the bad guys are!” Short term assignment!  Don’t take out any long term loans, right? Thanks to Thales' work, the Greeks taught the world that you could site in the black sails from two spots on ye old beach and work some similar triangle magic to calculate the distance to the enemy from the comfort of your condo! 

I’m sure a lot of you have had the distinction of being taught or teaching the Pythagorean Theorem in classes full of bright young minds who are really focused on texting from the security of their ubiquitous hoodies details of  binge watching Mad Men or some other uplifting social documentary.

Next is Pythagoras, the most dreaded name of middle school mathdom, born around 570 BC on the island of Samos. We aren’t sure if he actually did any of the math. Scandalous, right? What if the Pythagoras of the Pythagorean fame only “borrowed” the idea from colleagues, friends, and enemies? What we do know is that he convinced himself and a small but devoted group that he was a god. Imagine. “What church do you go to? Pythagorean!” The stuff of nightmares – all decorated in right triangles – A^2 and B^2 everywhere adding up to C^2... He was reportedly the first man to call himself a philosopher, or "lover of wisdom," and built a philosophy around the ideas that mathematics and numbers were important.

And what about Archimedes? You haven’t really lived until you have shared the story of Archimedes or “Markimedes” as the four-year-olds we taught in summer called him. Start off with the usual…born in Sicily in 287 BC. In his day job, he was the Father of Hydrostatics, greatest mathematician of antiquity, and servant to the King. This guy was working so hard on his math homework that he went home to take a bath and think about math (Weird, right?). He is most famous for being the world’s first overachieving STREAKER! Eureka! Oh yeah, some mental pictures are really, really hard to erase!  

Consider Fibonnaci or Leaonardo Bonnaci or Leanoardo de Pisa, but definitely NOT Leonardo DiCaprio! Born in Pisa in 1170.  'Would love to bring this guy in in the middle of those arithmetic sequence formulas and geometric sequence formulas and tie his ideas to the ultimate relevance of beautiful things like pine cones, sunflowers, and the ratio that our eyes say, “That’s beautiful."  Fibonnaci’s father was a merchant, and he traveled with his father on the first take-your-son-to-work year. They traveled to North Africa, learned the Hindu-Arabic numeral system, and brought it back to Europe. The ultimate show and tell! In the Mathematician Pageant – He won the talent show. – Fibonnaci was considered to be “Most Talented Western Mathematician of the Middle Ages.” He also figured out Fibonnaci Numbers and the Golden Ratio in his spare time.

Nothing really compares with tapping into your inner “Stick it to the man,” pre-teen, or borderline failing engineering student angst like a good story of rebellion! What about Blaise Paschal, the James Dean of mathematicians, born in 1623 in France? Paschal lost his mother at a tender age, and his father was a tax accountant and mathematician.  This is what kept little Blaise’s Papa up at night: “If I teach little Blaise geometry, he will become too obsessed (first diagnosis of OCD) and not want to study anything else.” Mr. Paschal, therefore, didn’t teach the lad geometry at all.  In the ultimate act of pre-teen angst, 12-year-old Blaise proved Euclid’s postulates in charcoal on the walls of his bedroom. Not to worry, to make things all better, Blaise also developed an early calculator to help Etienne, his dad, with calculations.  For fun, Blaise worked on conic sections!

You’ve heard of Batman and Robin and Starsky and Hutch. I give you Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz! There’s some sort of perverse struggling calculus student pleasure in knowing this closely guarded secret. Two great mathematicians, born in the mid 1600’s, were working on calculus at the same time, oblivious of each other’s work, Newton in England and Leibniz in Germany. Newton always considered the derivative to be a quantity or entity whereas Leibniz always thought of it as a fraction, the change in y over change in x.  What are the chances of two brilliant lights working on something as important as calculus at the same time without knowing about the other? I have one word for them, COLLABORATION!

I love telling stories of Daniel Bernoulli to elementary students as we are building gliders, planes, and parachutes for eggs. Bernoulli was a Swiss mathematician born in 1700. VERY bright boy, maybe too bright? He entered the same math competition as his dad when Daniel was just a lad and tied daddy dearest. The dadster never forgave Daniel. Wah Wah Wah! I don’t tell the elementary kids that detail in that clarity. We just say “His dad was mad for a really long time.” On a happier note, Daniel’s work led to everything we do in aerospace 200 years before the Wright brothers soared over the beach at Kitty Hawk. He’s considered the Father of Fluid Mechanics.

Up next we have James Maxwell. If there was ever an anthem for the sophomore engineering student to embrace with all her might, this is a story of mathematical redemption! Born in Scotland in 1831, Maxwell, the first to understand the relationship between electricity, magnetism, and light, discovered the foundation mathematics that led to electrical engineering. With typical Scottish melancholy, he declared at the time of his death that his work would never be of much use to anyone.

So very many times as a struggling engineering student, I knew that my classes were really really hard, and I did NOT know if it would ever add up to anything. In fact, if I could go back to myself along that road with my car broken down on the street, I would tell myself two things: The first would be:

"This will all add up to something – it really will be worth it."

Finally is the story – my favorite – of a great female mathematician Sonia Kovalevsky, born in Russia in 1850. Her nursery walls in Old Moscow were decorated with the pages of her uncle’s calculus book! Now there’s a nursery theme for you – and so green. She recalled trying to make sense of the figures on her bedroom walls. She was the first woman to get full professorship in Northern Europe. This came after leaving Russia to go to Germany so that she could enroll in University.  The fine print was that she could enroll, but she could not attend classes. She had to get notes from her male counterparts to study and eventually get her PhD in mathematics.

Along with probably every other female who has felt the cold north wind of pursuing a STEM degree, I can relate to Sonia Kovalevsky on so many levels.  It’s one thing to struggle in a challenging course, but all STEM majors will struggle! That’s a given. But there’s a terrible syndrome among many young women pursuing STEM degrees that we affectionately call “The Impostor Syndrome." That is the sense that we don’t really belong there – we aren’t smart enough, strong enough – you fill in the blank. So when you swing open the door to your thermodynamics class and see that you are one of two females in a class of 100 + young men, the material is challenging, and then it gets worse, you will do the most logical thing in the world – RUN! So if I could go back to myself beside the broken down GTO, the second thing that I would tell myself is that

“I do have a place here.” 

Sonia Kovalevsky’s story reminds me that it won’t be easy, I may have to kick down a few doors, but I am as capable and as needed as anyone else, and I dare not back off one inch because it’s hard. I would say to myself,

"TAKE YOUR PLACE! It will not be given to you!"

For those of you keeping track, I did go back to my mom’s GTO that day, and we did figure out a way to get the wheel back on the hub. I did go on to Texas Tech University and earn a BS in Petroleum Engineering. I am doubly fortunate to have enjoyed a second career as a high school math and physics teacher. Now I get to marry those two worlds on a daily basis, and I love to start with a great story.

I love to share stories of mathematicians with students for three reasons:
  • We are hard-wired for a story!  I could tell you a story about making breakfast, and you would be interested – you would! If we start with a story, it’s an almost irresistible hook and a great place to launch into the wonders of mathematics.
  • The stories of the mathematicians takes the mathematics out of the cold, lifeless, irrelevant textbook and puts into context and gives it relevance in the lives of flawed and brilliant mathematicians. It also gives us a hook to hang everything else that we are about to hear on.
  • The stories of mathematics call us to think about greater, higher, nobler things – to study patterns, to search for relationships, to persevere in studies that may not directly or immediately benefit us.  They call us to wonder, awe and reflection.
In closing–I love Sonia Kovalevsky’s line:

“Say what you know, do what you must, come what may."

We expect no more and deserve no less from ourselves. 

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