Mathematics and Sustainability

Student work from Mathematics and Sustainability class
Student work from Mathematics and Sustainability class

I just finished teaching a three week class on mathematics and sustainability. It was this amazing experience where I felt fully integrated: math, art, environmentalism—all these different parts of me were all there. Here are some samples of my students’ work.

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Girls on the Threshold of Math and Science

girlsindoorway

I remember so clearly standing in the doorway of the computer room as my teacher told me about the new computer club that was forming at our school. I was 13 years old. I had just finished 4 semesters of computer language classes: BASIC, Advanced BASIC, and LOGO (remember those days? Remember the little turtle? And Atari computers?) I really enjoyed those classes, but at that time there weren’t many more I could take—the next one up was something called “Assembly Language” which involved nothing but numbers. So I came at lunch time to check out the computer club. I stood in the doorway and what did I see? Rows of computers and lots of middle school kids, nearly all boys, huddled around screens making explosion noises (how do boys do that?) My eyes got wide and I slowly backed away. This was not a world I wanted to be a part of. I didn’t take another computer language course until college.

As the mother of teenage girls and a high school math teacher, I think about this moment all the time. What was going through my mind in that split second? What can I learn from that moment about how to encourage girls (and boys) in math and science?

For me the issue was (and to some extent still is) that I love math, I love computer programming, but I want my world to be bigger than that single activity. I want more connection with others, more emotional vibrancy and more color. And for some reason I was not sensing what I needed in that room at that time.

I also remember that that year was difficult for me socially. It wasn’t until high school that I made more friends and ended up finding my lunch hour home in the art room.

I think when we think about kids and learning, we need to remember the importance of context. There are so many environmental pieces that play into our decision making and our ability to absorb information. For me, the creative and artistic side must be fed. It’s only when I am emotionally grounded in the arts that I have the bandwidth and the bravery to take up the difficult and rewarding intellectual tasks of math and science.

In the years since, I have come to that doorway many times. Sometimes I back away and sometimes I step through and commit myself to delving deeply into the pursuit of intellectual knowledge. The gift of experience is that now I do so with awareness, and I can bring this awareness to my teaching as I help my students on their journeys.