Rachel Levy, Associate Professor of Mathematics at Harvey Mudd College, agreed to share five thoughts about math with us. She’s the editor in chief of Grandma got STEM (a site dedicated to grandmothers who work or worked in Science, Technology, Engineering or Math), the Interface Compendium of Student Work, and SIURO, an undergraduate applied mathematics research publication, as well as an associate editor of Math Horizons.
1. What do you love about math?
Math is inherently beautiful and useful at the same time. For example, there are lots of things you could use as a hammer, but some hammers are beautiful to look at, have great balance, feel good in your hand and also work well. When a mathematical argument or tool has been beautifully constructed, it is a thing of beauty, a powerful tool and also a path to understanding the world. When we write new mathematical proofs, we create understanding about mathematics itself.
2. How did you feel about math as a child and what shaped that opinion?
As a child, I loved the challenge of mathematics, especially the logic and the definitiveness of the answers. My Dad challenged me to learn more mathematics, and showed me connections between mathematics and other sciences, especially his profession, chemistry. I never found math difficult until I was placed in an accelerated class, which really scared and (temporarily) discouraged me. I wish that I had learned early on to deal with not knowing answers quickly and how to persevere through really tough problems. It took me a long time to learn to take breaks and trust that with enough time and effort, the understanding would come. I think people assume that if you are good at math it comes without effort – this discourages people when they reach a concept that takes time to understand. Mathematics, like anything, takes work, practice, and patient perseverance.
3. What is your favorite math memory?
I study how fluids move. I work with physicists, chemists, and engineers to create mathematical models that describe real phenomena. My favorite moments are when we can choose just the right information from experiments to make the most simple and elegant model that will explain what is happening. I also like when computer simulations provide clues about the solution to mathematical equations that cannot be solved by hand. I love to find patterns in simulations that nobody has reported before.
4. What advice do you have for parents who want to create a math-friendly environment?
No matter what experiences parents and teachers have had with mathematics, they can develop positive and honest messages about mathematics to convey to kids. We communicate our thoughts and feelings in both intentional/direct and incidental/indirect/nonverbal ways. Kids pick up easily on both. For example if a problem has many steps, think about whether to describe it as a “super challenge” or an “ugly problem.” Encourage kids to ask “what if” questions, and even if you can’t answer them right away, enjoy the process of trying to figure it out together. If you can’t sort it out, seek online resources. For example, Harvey Mudd College, where I work, has a homework hotline for grades 4-12. You can call the hotline at 1-877-8 ASK-HMC to ask questions about mathematics and science.
5. How do we inspire kids of all cultures and backgrounds to embrace math?
I think it would benefit all students to help elementary school teachers understand and teach how mathematics works, so that they can answer the “why” questions that kids ask. We need to give teachers preparation courses to help them feel confident about their mathematical ability and to develop a love of mathematics they can pass along to their students. This might require elementary teachers to become specialists (maybe just teaching a couple of subjects) rather than generalists. So much of the groundwork for mathematical understanding and attitude is laid in the elementary years – students need positive, rich experiences in mathematics, so that they can see mathematics as a creative, interesting, thoughtful process in addition to a set of steps and algorithms to memorize.