I am attending the Offshore Technology Conference this week, meeting old friends and looking for great math to talk about. Yesterday, while relaxing at the Oil States booth, I explained my goal of finding math at a trade show.
Amber, a subsea and pipeline engineer (i.e. super math girl) started throwing out ideas.
She saw the ratio of bolts in a flange connection to the size. She mentioned gear ratios and the number of turns it takes to open and close valves.
And then things took a strange turn.
Amber jumped outside the box with both feet: "How many CEOs does it take to change a light bulb?" I wrote down the joke.
Feeling comfortable with getting a little math-crazy, she unleashed her creativity.
She suggested that thread size, shape and spacing on bolts was like the binding on spiral notebooks - both good places where math is used. She pondered the statistics of letter frequency in the names of different nationalities of people.
And she noticed that the distance between the signs hanging from the rafters, and the tops of the booths must have been calculated or they would be smacking into each other.
"I love thinking outside the box," she gleefully exclaimed.
And then she told a story of creativity destroyed.
As a child, she had drawn the famous Ferdinand the Bull under his favorite tree, smelling the flowers.
And her teacher told her it sucked.
"I never did art again," she confessed to me.
Heartbreaking - especially since I've heard a version of this story hundreds of times. I never thought that I would ever hear it told with drawing, though.
A few words can destroy creativity.
It's normal and healthy to know our strengths and weaknesses. But we each have a right to discover our own weaknesses. Having someone declare our weaknesses is a violation.
Amber does very well as an engineer. But how different would her life look like now if she had continued to draw?
Maybe none. Maybe she would have drawn for years, enjoying it. Perhaps she would have eventually discovered that she was much better suited to engineering.
But maybe she would have become a Picasso.
Be careful what you say.
If a child is giving it their best shot and you meet them with criticism, you might shut down their creativity for life. And it's easy to do this with math - there are so many ways for a kid to do things "wrong."
But try to treat math learning like learning to create art. Regardless of how much the drawing sucks, be encouraging.
If a child is adding denominators instead of finding a common one, discuss what the answer looks like. Give them the right, and the power, to see where they went wrong.
Foster each child like they're a budding Picasso and Pythagoras, regardless of how little talent you may see in them. Let them do things their way.
You just might be surprised at what they end up doing.
- The Gruel We Feed Our Children
- How a Mathematician Became Math Phobic
- Education vs. Technology – One Advances and the Other Doesn’t
- Math Rules & Their Destruction of Education
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