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Beat math anxiety: Bring out the M in STEM

By Michael Compton

Two youth working on Rube Goldberg machine
Image by Wes Agresta/Argonne National Laboratory
Have you ever thought of mathematics as poetry? Albert Einstein once said, “Pure mathematics is, in its own way, the poetry of logical ideas.” Unfortunately, most young people have not been introduced to math in this way. For most of them, their math experiences have been the repetitive practice of calculation exercises, using and applying formulas and taking tests. But relying solely on these methods can lead youth to see math as confusing, unimportant, uninteresting or just plain boring.

For educators who lead experiences in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) in non-formal and after-school settings, I ask this question: Is it important to help youth overcome the negative attitudes they have about math? Should we?

The answer of course is "Yes, we should!" But why? A common response could be “Because math is important”. But I believe the answer is much deeper.

Leading positive STEM learning experiences can help young people overcome math anxiety. Research shows that math anxiety can cause poorer performance in elementary, middle and high school. It can also influence whether they pursue a STEM career. Research also shows that parental math anxiety can affect learning and achievement in their children. The issue is both academic and emotional.

Lowering math anxiety for youth and adults

If we design STEM learning experiences that make math engaging, enjoyable and show how math is the hidden secret to understanding the world, it can lower anxiety for young people and the caring adults in their lives. This allows us to help youth both academically and emotionally. Win, win!

Positive experiences with math are important for young people. But math often gets left on the sidelines in STEM-focused programming. Getting young people excited about science, technology and engineering is easy. Science has a “cool factor”. It creates visions of experiments, making things expand, change color or explode. Engineering allows youth to create something and use innovative thinking to solve problems or complete a challenge. Technology more than ever, is the tool in which youth use to interact with the world socially, emotionally and academically. But math? Math on its own is just a science of structure, order and relation. It can seem less cool.

How do we overcome this? Let's use STEM learning to show young people that math is about taking creative approaches to solve problems. Let us show them how math plays an essential role in creative arts, such as music and dance. It is a vital ingredient in sports, agriculture, and space exploration. The list is endless. Maybe someday STEM will turn into MEST!

When you lead STEM programming, do you focus on math and why it's important? Have you seen STEM experiences that ignore math? What are ways we can make math exciting for young people through STEM programming?

-- Michael Compton, Extension educator

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  1. Hi Mike.

    Thanks for starting this conversation focused on the importance of math. Just yesterday I was moved by this video piece produced at UMD that focuses on one math faculty member, Prof. Joe Gallian. Did you know that some of the most talented math students in the nation go to UMD every summer to participate in his undergraduate research program?

    Inspiring. The video identifies important dimensions of the program design that apply in our work in youth development.

    1. Hi Becky,
      Thank you for the response and sharing the video of Prof. Gallian. I was moved by how his approach to learning inspires young people to practice math research through building relationships and infusing their passions into the exploration of mathematics. He takes a unique approach that I would love to see replicated with more young people. Thank you for sharing his story.

  2. Mike, thank you for sharing this article. I think many times math gets overlooked when we are delivering STEM programming. Many times people run to the science and do not bring the importance of math because of their comfort level. It is important to help volunteers and adults get comfortable with math first and that will trickle down as they work with youth. This is a great conversation starter. Thanks for your article.

    1. Thanks Brian. I agree! There is ample opportunity for educators who work in STEM and youth development to provide content and best practices for youth and adult parents and volunteers connected to math. Bridging gaps and introducing math in non-threatening, fun and engaging ways is key. The next step is to begin put it into practice.

  3. This week my groups tested their rates of speed against The Flash. They walked and ran trials and calculated their terminal velocities in feet per second, then translated it to miles per hour using a conversion graph. Most of them got into it and were amazed to see the difference between them and Usain Bolt, the real life Flash. It was obvious, though, that there was a lot of anxiety when the word "division" came up. Although our experiments were pretty systematic, I hope to find more ways for youth to stretch their math brains that come about organically.

    1. Thank you for sharing a great example of applying mathematical principles in a unique and engaging way! This is a great example of taking a different approach than the traditional approaches to math as I shared. I love that you incorporated physical activity into helping youth develop their mathematical development. Are there other approaches you have used that you feel have been effective?


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