Why some Teens Dislike Math and Science

I teach a class where high school students show up early to ask questions. I have to make them leave when class is over. They actually ask for more homework.

Teenagers don’t dislike math and science. They dislike math and science -classes-. Most teens (and most adults, for that matter) have had limited access to real scientific inquiry and no experience with the real world of mathematics.

I’m not a great teacher, and I don’t know any answers to the math and science conundrum, but I’ve been very encouraged by my classes. I don’t call it a math or science course. It’s about building computer games. The students absolutely love video games, and they’re thrilled about the prospect of building their own.

I’m teaching them some computer programming, but (don’t tell them) that’s just the glue. As an example, it’s pretty easy to make a game element follow the mouse, or move directly in the X or Y axis, but soon enough a student asks how to move an object in an arbitrary direction at an arbitrary speed (they don’t usually use the word ‘arbitrary’ until I teach it to them…) I have them try to make an object move 5 units at 14 degrees, and they usually fail.

I encourage them to fail. They don’t get enough of that.

Once they’ve learned that their previous conception is not enough to solve the problem, they ask for tricks. I cave in eventually, and show them a way to do it. In this particular example, the solution involves vector projection. The solution touches upon trig, algebra, Greek history, and even a little linear algebra.

(dx = r * cos(theta) and dy = r * sin(theta) if you’re playing along at home.)

They ask for these formulas, they care about where they come from, and they literally can’t wait to try writing them into their own programs. When they’ve got this idea, they feel empowered. They now know a secret, and they can do things they couldn’t do before. The next time they see a problem like this, they’ll have a better idea how to solve it.

Math isn’t supposed to be about problems. It’s about solutions. It’s not about putting more barriers in your way. Textbooks are full of problems you have to plow through, rather than solutions that make you more powerful.

I took all those math classes, and I couldn’t have cared less. It was stupid. When I asked my math teachers when I’d need some of that stuff, they gave me vague nonsense about working for NASA and finding the area under a curve.

So far I’ve never encountered a river that obligingly followed an f(x) function, and I’ve never had to measure a parcel of land ‘beneath’ that river. When I explain how to determine the optimal compression of an MP3 file (a problem they struggle with every day) suddenly everyone’s asking really great questions about (they don’t know what to call it) Riemann sums and the Fundamental Theory of Calculus.

I’ve found that my students gravitate (pun completely intended) towards physics in my gaming classes. They get things moving around and crashing into each other, but they know it isn’t right. If you want to know if you have an accurate physics model, put it on an X-Box and let any 5th grader play with it. Even though they can’t tell you a thing about Newton’s laws, they’ll know instantly if there’s a problem with your model.

They want to get it right. They ask for physics! It’s our job to give them the amount they need when they’re ready for it, and to gently lead them to the point where they ask for it.

Ask my students how orbits work. I had a friend (who IS a rocket scientist) sit in on one of my classes one day, and he was astonished at the level of understanding my students had of basic orbital mechanics. They knew it because they were building a system that did it. (That’s a great example by the way – it seems really complicated, but if you truly understand Newton’s law of universal gravitation, it’s very easy to build a simulation using it – orbital gravity is actually easier than realistic automobile motion)

I always cringe when I hear people talking about ‘making math and science relevant’ to kids. We don’t have to do that. It already IS relevant. It’s our educational system, forcing us into a mass-production, test-measured outcome model that turns these inherently thrilling topics into mind-numbing drivel.

Any kind of real learning is inherently exciting. I encourage any teacher (which doesn’t just mean the ones with an education degree, a license, and a union card) to keep learning, to keep falling in love with his or her topic, and to help students see the joy and power of a brain forever expanding.