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STEM Can Be For Everyone – Sometimes You Just Need a Different Approach

It’s been ten years since I graduated from college.  I am nowhere near where I thought I’d be – and for that I am eternally grateful.  Call it fate, or providence, or karma, or coincidence, whatever you want to believe in.  Whatever it is, I’m truly happy my path has turned out the way it has.  The biggest thing I’ve learned is that it’s never too late and a lot more people are cut out for STEM fields than think they are.

Many young people turn away from possible futures because they think it’s too late for something to happen in their lives, or that they’re not smart enough or strong enough.  This is, sadly, especially true for people who might be interested in STEM fields.

Young people start out with pretty good parity in math and science.  But by junior high, something unfortunate has happened and many girls (and sometimes boys as well) have decided  – or, more often, been told – that they aren’t any good at math or science.  They focus on other things rather than try again at something they either once failed at or were told they couldn’t do.  They forget they wanted to be an astronaut or a programmer or a dentist.  More and more people are having second, even third careers now.  They don’t expect to stay in the same place or do the same thing.  So remember that it’s never too late to try out a STEM field.

You may feel hopelessly behind or lost in math or science, but they key is to try it from another angle.  I was always a math whiz as a kid, except in two cases.  First, geometry.  I just didn’t get it.  It made no sense to me.  I muddled through somehow with lots of extra work and frustration and managed a B-.  It was the worst grade I got in my entire life until college.

Then in college I almost failed Differential Equations.  It was another case of just not getting it.  I went to the professor for help.  I went to other students for help.  I went to the tutoring center for help.  I spent hours in my professor’s office and in the office of another math prof.

I wound up with a D in the course, and it was a mercy D.  It was a D for sheer effort.  As in they didn’t understand who put in so much time and effort could possibly fail every test.  So I passed… barely.  On academic probation.  ‘D is for done’ sure didn’t feel done.  I seriously considered changing majors.  Maybe I wasn’t cut out for aerospace engineering after all, if I couldn’t cut it in one of our sophomore core classes.

And then something funny happened.  The next year I took a control systems class, and the first few weeks of it was a review of differential equations.  It clicked.  It finally made sense.  I got it.  And I slowly regained my confidence and stuck with a major that both challenged and interested me.

In grad school, years later, I took Differential Equations again.  It was required as a refresher since it had been more than six years since I had finished my undergrad.  I was nervous about it, after my struggles the first time around and it being so long since I was in school.  I did fine.  It wasn’t a cake walk, doing diff eq’s with a newborn and after so long away from school, but compared to the other classes I was taking it was a breeze.

I have spent an awful lot of time in school now.   Since I was three and started preschool, I have taken at least one class every year except 2010 and 2013.  I have learned that, with the exception of a few extraordinary geniuses, everyone struggles with some subject.  And when you run into that subject, you can try, and try, and try again, or you can decide you’re no good at it and give up.

Trying again doesn’t mean just banging your head against the wall.  It could mean trying a different textbook.  It could mean asking someone to watch you do some problems to see where you might be going astray.  Sometimes you need a different prof, teacher, tutor, parent, or friend who comes at it from a different way.  Just don’t throw your hands up and say “it’s too hard, I’ll never get it.”  Because when it does click, it’s not only an amazing feeling, but it opens you up for new, exciting topics.

When I was struggling with the geometry course, my mom told me about how she took calculus three times in college.  The third time she got an A.   Even though she had passed before, she wanted to understand it.  She credits a good teacher whose approach worked for her, and it clicked.  I’m glad she taught me that the most important thing is to fully understand, not necessarily to get an easy A.

Don’t let someone in your life give up on a career, major, or even a single class because they are struggling.  In this age of the internet, it’s easy to look for another way – online notes, some Khan Academy videos, Schaum’s Outlines, online tutoring services, or even lectures from some of the great online courses free from MIT.

What have you struggled with academically? What resources helped you get through it?  Do you ever wish you had chosen a different path, career field, or major?  What would you say to a young person who is struggling?


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