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  • Pam Ray

Superhero: How ‘Non-Math Mom’ Became 'STEM-Mom'

Updated: Mar 2, 2021

Ah, math. For some it’s second nature.

And then there are the rest of us.

The point is that math has something to do with everything and is critical to exploration, discovery and problem solving.

“STEM begins at home. No doubt you have “what you want to be when you grow up” conversations with your kids. You might begin by melding math with their interests – or yours.”

My Journey

I shied away from math for much of my life, avoiding calculations at work and home. When my kids needed help with their math homework, I’d say “I’m not good at math, go ask your father” not realizing I was sabotaging their future careers with my own misguided attitude.

The walls came tumbling down just as my 16 year old was supposed to be preparing for post-high school life (yikes). My professional work as a government relations columnist clashed with my roll as a parent when as I dug into issues related to Congress and job creation in the post-2008 economy and everything kept coming up STEM STEM STEM. The rapidly changing technology economy was mandating a new depth of commitment to math.

And then it hit me. First, I created an anti-math atmosphere in my home. Second, I failed to emphasize, early on, the importance of the “M” in STEM. I truly panicked and believed that I would fail my kids as a parent on this one count – their place and potential in the future workforce.

After my awakening, I played a much more active role in my kids’ math education. I began to communicate everyday uses of math in our home and required them to take math through high school. (They picked statistics and economics over calculus but I think those are just as useful in developing critical thinking skills.)

Thinking I was enlightened, I admired my son for applying to community college as a stepping-stone with the belief that it was good transition from high school to his “undecided” future. My enthusiasm skidded to a halt -- albeit temporarily -- when he told me he was required to take a remedial math test. How could this be? I wrongly assumed that a high school graduate had the knowledge to move into college freshman classes.

He wound up passing the test and went on to start college in a timely manner, but he was actually a math minority. According to research by the Hechinger Report, more than 50 percent of incoming students attending two or four- year colleges (public) first have to complete remedial math (and English) classes. Not only do the classes delay the start of college, they increase the overall tuition bill and often deter students from earning credits that lead to a degree.

I live in the DC/Northern Virginia area, known for its highly skilled, high tech workforce. Unbelievably, a January 2017 survey of top 100 metro areas for STEM professionals ranks this region 100 out of 100 in eighth-grade math scores. The same study ranks the area 7th out of 100 in projected STEM employment growth and 1st in projected demand for STEM jobs by 2020. The STEM job hiring projections are highest in the country while potential candidates are ranked dead last based on math scores. That’s quite a skills gap.

For “non-math” parents like me, STEM begins at home. No doubt you have “what you want to be when you grow up” conversations with your kids. You might begin by melding math with their interests – or yours.

I love sailing. It wasn’t until I’d been on the water for some time before I realized my alleged non-mathematical mind seemed to absorb the physics of using pulleys and blocks and calculating wind angles pretty easily along with simply noticing how much I applied math to nautical charts, tide charts and calculating depths to keep a boat from running aground. I translate wind speed from miles-per-hour to knots and convert miles traveled to nautical miles logged.

In 2014, I applied my passion locally and helped launch and run an Annapolis, MD based “STEM through Sailing and Boating” program for fifth graders that connects their classroom learning in math and science with fun, hands-on real life applications.

There are many ways to work math into your daily lives.

The point is that math has something to do with everything and is critical to exploration, discovery and problem solving. Here are a few additional ideas to make math come alive at home:

  • Use the “Fitbit” to ask your kids to explain the relationship between steps, calories burned and calories consumed. How does this relate to balanced diet?

  • Establish a savings account with your child and have them keep a record of their spending and savings. Have them calculate interest or develop a savings plan for them to purchase a new toy or sporting equipment.

  • Have them calculate the tip when you are out to dinner.

  • Ditch the digital clock for one with hands and numbers.

  • Ride the train and calculate the fare from one place to another. If it’s a regular commute figure out the costs for a week or month.

  • Hand over the cell phone bill and ask what behaviors over a month make it higher or lower. What are the charges? And the taxes?

  • Encourage science and math programs on television.

  • Stay positive when it comes to your own mathematical endeavors.

There are very few non-STEM careers. Thanks to the new digital economy, every path, whether your child is a brilliant graphic artist or born to build things, will require some sort of mathematical ability.

Generating a positive can-do math attitude is critical to your kids’ success in completing college, whether it’s a two-year or a four-year commitment. That goes for a technical trades’ education too. That means if you are a non-math parent like I was, you need to find a way to let your own superhero shine through!

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