Dan Shapiro is the founder of two software companies, has worked at Microsoft and Google, and is the proud dad of four-year-old boy/girl twins. He’s also the creator of Robot Turtles, a tabletop board game that teaches computer programming concepts to kids ages 3-8. Robot Turtles helps parents teach their own kids programming fundamentals without prior knowledge or experience. Dan uses math as a programmer, a business owner, and as a dad. He generously shared five thoughts about math.
1. What do you love about math?
I love what math can do for me. When I think about an idea for a new business, I have the same tools at my disposal that Warren Buffett or Donald Trump do. I can build a business model, calculate margins, examine scenarios – everything I want to know, I can figure out. I’ve built three companies, and without the math I learned in school, I am quite confident that none of them would have succeeded.
2. How did you feel about math as a child and what shaped that opinion?
My dad has a PhD in mathematics and is a professor of Computer Science. I grew up hearing stories about the mean policeman (who could prove that you must have been speeding by knowing how long it took you to cross the bridge). But it was my mom who made the pivotal decision that really connected me with my lifelong love of math. When I was seven, my parents disagreed about whether or not to get me a computer. Computers were still completely new and were very strange things to have in the house, and my dad figured that I’d learn about them in due time. Mom wanted to get me one.
I actually didn’t really get in to math until I got that computer. More specifically, until I learned a programming language called Turtle Graphics (also known as Logo). It let me draw pictures with programs and math.
I believe that math and programming are two sides to the same coin – if kids learn to love either one, they’ll get drawn to the other. Turtle Graphics was what got me to love math. (And as a side note, it was the inspiration for my board game, Robot Turtles – so I could get a new generation hooked!)
3. What is your favorite math memory?
Well, that one’s easy. It may be cheating to call it a memory, but we have a press clipping from the North Dakota State University newspaper about the new professor’s two year old son Daniel. According to the newspaper clipping, I was able to do basic addition, subtraction, and even square roots!
Here’s how my interview with the reporter went:
My Dad: “Daniel, what’s 2 plus 1?”
Me: “Three!” (actually, “free!” because I couldn’t make the TH sound yet.)
My Dad: “Right! OK, now Daniel, what’s 5 minus 2?”
My Dad:”‘Terrific! OK, Daniel, this is a really hard one… what’s the square root of 9?”
As goofy as this sounds, playing with numbers early left me with a feeling that there wasn’t anything particularly scary about math – it was just cool stuff you learned with mom and dad.
4. What advice do you have for parents who want to create a math-friendly environment?
Get math away from the dreaded worksheet! Give them apps like Dragonbox Algebra. Play games like Sudoku. Ask them spontaneous questions – “If you bought four of those, how much would that cost?” Instead of an allowance, have them sell homemade cookies – where they get to double the recipe, budget for ingredients, make change, and keep records.
5. Girls often like and excel in math in the early grades, but do not pursue degrees or careers in math later on. How can we involve and retain more girls in math?
As a parent of four-year-old boy/girl twins, it seems like a terrible injustice that my daughter may not have the same opportunities in math, science, and programming that my son will. It’s not just about math jobs – it’s about having the tools to excel in science, teaching, business, and entrepreneurship.
I don’t think you inspire kids to love math. I think you inspire kids to love what math can do. Right now, my daughter is excited about animals. So we talk about a lot of animal math. For example, she told me that she saw a lizard at the zoo who had just two toes on its foot. I asked her how many feet it had, and then how many toes it had on all its feet together.
She’s also excited about drawing. I’ve been showing her all sorts of different shapes and telling her the names – rhombus, icosahedron, different types of triangles. (I didn’t remember them all, so I looked them up on my phone!) Then we cut out some of the shapes and arranged them on construction paper with tape to make faces.
Ultimately kids connect with what’s relevant to them. I’m not sure what’s going to be relevant to my children at 6, or 8, or 18. But whatever it is, I’ll try to point out the math there.