Education Technology

How I overcame my fear of mathematics and finally understood the world

Posted 01/19/2017 by Peter Balyta

As a child growing up in Canada, my one true passion was ice hockey. I was maybe a bit too small for the game, but what I lacked in size I tried to make up for in speed and technical ability. When I wasn’t on the ice, I was engrossed in baseball and martial arts.

As long as I was playing something, I was happy. Throughout high school, athletics was far and away my No. 1 purpose in life. On the other end of the spectrum – quite possibly the farthest thing away from my interests – was mathematics. The mere thought of math made me anxious. What was the point of memorizing multiplication tables, anyway? I saw no connection between math, goals and at-bats.

A kick to the head in a karate match changed everything. It left me partially paralyzed for a couple weeks and ended my dreams of being a professional hockey or baseball player. The recovery period changed my life, but not in the way I had expected. Laying in bed recuperating, I had a moment of clarity.

What if the sports I loved and the math I loathed were one and the same? The answer was, undeniably, yes. I also realized it was time to get serious about school and preparing for college. I made educational success a priority.

The angles needed for a perfect bank shot? Math. The speed I needed to check the bigger opponent into the wall instead of knocking me over? Math again. The speed and timing required to karate kick through a board? Yep – math.

I finally understood that I needed math to make sense of the world As a former teacher who is now the president of Texas Instruments Education Technology, it’s a view I strongly believe we must instill in our children in a world increasingly hungry for literacy in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).

I’m not talking about the drills required to perform addition, subtraction and other computational types of math. While those are certainly important, today’s technology gives our children an opportunity to focus on mastering higher mathematical concepts.

From the movement of objects through space (physics) to the speed of physiological reactions (biochemistry), math is the crux of an interdisciplinary approach to understanding the world. You don’t have to be a scientist to need math – a solid understanding of basic algebra can help you do something as common as managing your personal finances.

I regularly speak with groups of children about math. I try to make it real. Math principles are everywhere – in sports, in entertainment, in cooking, in medicine, and even in nature, such as the migration paths of birds. These examples are only the tip of the iceberg (and yes, math principles can even be found on an iceberg by measuring the temperature at which it could melt).

I was recently taken back in time during a day spent alongside other TI employees to work with students at KIPP Destiny Middle School in Dallas. We took 120 seventh grade students through a series of interactive STEM exercises, including how to use math to succeed in everyday situations, from saving up for a car to cooking a new recipe.

Their enthusiasm was infectious and made me realize that it’s never too late to become fluent in math. Many students struggle with math because they do not understand the relevancy of math for their future. Many adults, meanwhile, say they’re not a “math person.” These can no longer be excuses in a world that increasingly revolves around STEM, regardless of career choice. Young and old, we must do better.

Even for what may be considered non-STEM careers, such as marketing, journalism, or human resources, STEM proficiency is important for the problem-solving skills and deeper, analytical thinking that STEM engenders.

The truth is that we should never label ourselves or anyone else as not a “math person.” We cannot let the math fundamentals be the hurdle limiting our potential. Our daily lives are too dependent on math to ignore. Math skills are survival skills. It’s time to embrace math and finally understand the world to its full potential.

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