How professors' dads made math fun
Heather Lewis at her Ph.D. graduation with her father.
June 15th, 2012
09:53 AM ET

How professors' dads made math fun

Editor's Note: Matthew Lane is a Ph.D. candidate in mathematics at UCLA and is the founder of Math Goes Pop!, a blog focused on the surprisingly rich intersection between mathematics and popular culture. Follow him on Twitter at @mmmaaatttttt. 

There are many misconceptions about mathematicians in popular culture. For example, windows and mirrors do not make for the best writing surfaces, despite what you might assume from "A Beautiful Mind" or "Good Will Hunting."

Mathematicians are also frequently portrayed as painfully socially awkward. And while this is sometimes the case, the true range of personality types is much more varied. Even among the more socially awkward, it is not uncommon for mathematicians to fall in love, marry and start a family.

What must it be like to grow up in a household with a mathematician? In the spirit of Father's Day, I spoke with two mathematicians whose fathers were also mathematicians about what it's like being raised in a mathematical household.

iReport: What makes your Father's Day special?

The first thing to know about a mathematical household is that it is not necessarily overtly mathematical.

"Math was always implicitly in everything but rarely explicitly done," said Dr. David Kung, associate professor of mathematics at St. Mary's College of Maryland. His father was a mathematician at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. When mathematics was done, it was placed in an organic context.

"I remember my dad sending me to the corner store to get a loaf of bread when I was 4 or 5," Kung said. "He told me how much the bread would be, gave me a couple of dollars and asked how much change I should get. I wanted to do math because my parents always put me in positions where doing math was useful and fun."

This was not the only situation in which mathematics arose naturally.

"When I was 6, my parents bought some land and a Buckminster Fuller geodesic dome kit," he continued. "For the next year, we (and other members of the Math Department) worked to build our house. Looking back, it was an outrageously educational experience. I learned oodles of math and physics, but the most important thing I learned is that you can make something work if you take basic principles and understand how the parts are connected. That's a fairly abstract concept, but it applies to most of the math I've ever done."

Though the math may not have always been explicit, education itself was highly valued.

"Education was always important," he said. "That was clear from both of my parents. In fact, my mom pushed a little harder on the school part of education. My dad concentrated more on learning."

Dr. Heather Lewis, professor of mathematics at Nazareth College in New York, echoed this sentiment. "Education was, without question, viewed as important: My dad has a Ph.D. in math, and my mom a master's degree in Japanese, and both read a lot," she said. "When I was in elementary school, my mom took a year of calculus at the university for fun, so there was certainly the notion that learning could be valuable for its own sake, not just as a means to an end."

Growing up in an atmosphere where learning was so beloved and with a free private math tutor always on-hand, perhaps it is easier to avoid the crippling anxiety that forces so many people to abandon math as soon as they can.

"I always loved math," Kung said. "I enjoyed the puzzles, the logical process, the fact that you could get an answer and be certain of it. The way my dad contributed to that was to help me learn how to ask good mathematical questions. It's an aspect of mathematics sadly missing from most curricula: answering questions that you yourself have asked."

While it took Lewis a bit longer to love mathematics, she eventually came around.

"I don't remembering anything about mathematics standing out until fifth grade," she said. "My teacher, Mr. Greenall, gave me a book of pre-algebra to do on my own, and that opened up a whole new world for me: Solving equations, even simple ones, was fantastic. That summer, I sat in on a pre-algebra course at Cal Poly and loved it."

Lewis continued to take math classes at California Polytechnic State University, where her father taught, once the summer ended.

Having her father work at Cal Poly didn't hurt. "My dad didn't push me, but he was there in the background: He knew who my teachers would be, made sure that the logistics were taken care of, and I think kept a pretty close eye on things."

Her father's support was amplified by her mother and her parents' friends and proved to be quite a boon for a woman who wanted a career in such a male-dominated field.

"I know women my age who were told by teachers that men were (always) better at math than women, and I've seen my share of books that only use 'he' when talking about mathematicians in a generic sense," Lewis said. "My father, my mother and all of the other teachers I knew never made those assumptions, however, and looking back, I'm aware both of how my parents tried to make it as easy as possible for me to study and really how supportive people were."

While growing up with a mathematician may involve writing on windows, these two developed even more important skills: a love of learning, early and continued exposure to mathematical thinking, and an understanding that mathematics is about much more than formula memorization.

For any parent, these would certainly be desirable qualities to instill in your children. But how can one begin? How does one even explain what mathematics is about to a young child?

“When I was very young and asked what he did,” Lewis said of her father, “he told me he put Band-aids on numbers.” Not a bad assessment of the job.

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Filed under: Dear Old Dad • Math • On Earth
soundoff (10 Responses)
  1. Rebecca

    When I visited the site, I found it to be very useufl to the understanding ofa0mathematic concepts. This site is verya0engaging for studentsa0to practice the use of number sense as well as solving equations. The timed process is great.a0For teachers ,a0the lesson planninga0would be easy.a0Teachers could have students meet a certain score by so much time, have students write the equations down and solve by hand if needed. By having the students write down the equations, it will hold them accountable to the lesson being completed. The demonstration is very easy as well. Any teacher can walk a student through the process; a teacher will most likely have 100% participation. By using this game,a0teachers could make it an assessment too. Overall, design would be done for you through the website.Students would be engaged and would be applying what they would have already learned through the use of a simple game. The graphics would keep them entertained, focused, and busy. The score count as well as the timed mechanism would want them to compete with those around them for a better score.a0Skill-building would be of the utmost importance, and with this game students will be able to practice even after the lesson.a0

    August 2, 2012 at 10:02 pm |
  2. ricky hughes

    johnleb, the person before you (kingazuraz) asked for an online site that does maths from BASICS to UNIVERSITY level. On which planet is undergrad basic maths? Can I suggest Khanacademy.com as a great free site

    June 23, 2012 at 7:34 pm |
    • kingazuraz

      I'll check that out. Thank you

      June 24, 2012 at 12:53 pm |
  3. dakota2000

    Looking at my daughters honors math books, I am shocked at how boring and poorly written it they are. There is an emphasis on doing problems that are of complete irrelevance to everyday life, and on memorizing stupid formulas.
    Like the two train problem (train a leaves location los angeles at 50 miles per hour and trainb be leaves phoenix at 75 miles per hour in the opposite direction, when will they collide?
    My answer is "who cares? Just roll the video!"

    Math, as in the story above, should be integrated into everyday life.. Math texts at the circa 1900 focused on practical problems of the day. Today's problems are totally disconnected from reality.

    Further, much of early math is spent on learning to do computation- which my computer does very quickly and accurately– what is more important is to learn to estimate quickly. Precise numbers (rarely of any value .. even to accountants... ) can be done on computers or with a spread sheet.

    Our k-12 system is totally out of sync with the needs of University level courses. That is probably why that while the majority of people going to college want to major in science or engineering, they quickly flunk out because of shoddy math skills even though they were "a" students in AP calculus in High school...

    June 22, 2012 at 10:40 am |
    • Daniel

      Ray used Cognitive tutor ( what Miami Dade is using) a few years back. It was a total failure. In my opioinn, there are a few reasons for the failure:1. Students go to the computer twice a week and work on problems. whenever a students does not get a problem, the computer gives hint. But students do have the option to see the correct answer at will and most of them just opted out to see the answers right away. 2. The curriculum does not stress basic math skills. It focuses more on graph and applications problems. 3. For whatever reason it may be, kids will be able to do it on the computer and not on paper even if they are working on the exact same question. So that year, Ray's TAKS score was horrible. And the next year, Ray opted out of it. A lot of money was wasted. Then again, maybe there is better way of using Cognitive tutor. We did not persist and give it a serious try. Is there any other school that also tried Cognitive tutor and how did it come out?

      September 10, 2012 at 12:54 pm |
  4. kingazuraz

    I wish there was an online mathematics teaching program that started from basics to University level so I could learn higher math from home.

    June 21, 2012 at 9:32 am |
    • johnleb

      Kingazuraz there is.. go to MIT open learning web site (google it) and you can take all the math courses on line for free.. undergrad to phd level..

      June 21, 2012 at 2:29 pm |
      • kingazuraz

        I'll definitely check that out. Thanks for the info.

        June 21, 2012 at 2:59 pm |
  5. Rudolph vs

    Mathematics is a usefull subject in many fields.
    Unfortunately many do not recognize this.

    June 20, 2012 at 9:20 am |

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