“I’ve been in several robotics competitions, so building another robot is easy,” said a middle schooler in GATE (Gifted and Talented Education).
“So how many times does each wheel need to turn for the robot to travel to the end of the room?” I asked.
“Oh, I never learned that,” he said.
If he was willing to take some time to break down the problem, he would just need to do two steps of calculation using the math he already learned two years ago.
His reluctance to solve a problem that he’s capable of doing is not rare in students. He knows math, very very well, but it didn’t come to him as a handy tool. Like mentioned in the Finding STEM at Your Pencil Tip, technology used in STEM programs is overshadowing and distracting our kids to develop computational thinking the solid way. As a result, application of math to solve problems doesn’t seem natural when it’s needed.
STEM stops making sense without the support of math. Math classes happen every day and STEM groups meet everywhere. But, hey, who’s teaching the kids to apply math in STEM?
How Does STEM Build Upon Math? What’s the MSET Pizza?
In the recent STEM education, the focus is on science, technology, and engineering. Math is still just emphasized as a subject. It is the last in the acronym STEM and that can mislead us to think that it’s not a major part of STEM.
The truth is, math is the foundation of STEM. It’s so important that it should be the first letter, turning STEM into “MSET”.
Think of the layers in a pizza. Math is the base, supporting all the theories and applications in science and engineering. The cheese is applications of math, sticking all the different toppings of science and engineering disciplines together. Finally, the aroma that comes out of the baked pizza – the integration of math, science, and engineering – is then the technology that we enjoy.
Looking back at all the “how did they” questions about a pencil from the Finding STEM at Your Pencil Tip post, every question was once answered in math by scientists and engineers, for a simple object to work and last.
Knowing What’s in Your Child’s Math to Help Them Learn it the Right Way at the Right Age
Math is important and the kids learn it in school. We’re all set then, right? Maybe, maybe not.
As a professional tutor, I’m seeing a discrepancy between how math should be taught and what’s actually happening in math education.
We can’t argue with the teachers about their philosophy and styles, but we can certainly supplement what’s missing to learn math the right way at the right age. As parents, if we understand the high-level target to hit and the mentality to have, then our children will have a strong base in their MSET pizza.
Up until Grade 6, the math focus is on the calculation techniques and applications of whole number, fraction, and decimal operations in addition, subtraction, multiplication and division.
K-Grade 2: Math is highly conceptual and observational. The focus to is understand how numbers go up (addition) and down (subtraction). Counting fingers helps the students understand the relationship between numbers while vertical calculation techniques are being introduced. Applications of math are straightforward at this level. Exploratory activities and fun math are time well invested.
Grades 3-4: Kids start to add the same numbers quickly (multiplication) and solve the reverse of this operation (division). Multiplication and division kick in. Knowing the times table by heart becomes the key to advance and enjoy math. Imagine counting fingers to add 9 nine times to solve 9 x 9 = 81. Knowing the answer as a fact takes one step, versus adding “9” nine times is a nine-step process. The longer the process, the more room there is for mistakes and frustration.
That means paper and pencil practice need to become a regular part of math coaching, without completely replacing the importance of understanding the WHY and applications.
At this level, a constant reminder is needed for the students to apply multiplication when it’s more efficient than addition.
Besides whole numbers, fractions and decimals are also introduced at the conceptual level. Mastering whole number operations would certainly prepare the kids for the next set of adventures.
Grades 5-6: This is a critical level. If math is smooth up to this level, then math will be manageable afterwards as well. In other words, if your child is not strong in math, this is the time to really focus on it, as much as it takes.
These two grades repeat almost the same topics. The only difference would be the complexity of number combinations. The concepts of basic whole number operations (plus, minus, times, and divide) are expected by now. So the focus shifts more to mastering the calculation techniques and effectively communicate the thought process.
Consequently, decimals and fractions also become more calculation and application intensive.
Grades 7-8: Numbers extend from just the positive space to the negative space. More than just numbers, letters, hence the unknowns (x and y), also become a big part of the game. The techniques learned for positive numbers in the past few years are now used in numbers of all forms mixed with unknowns – to find the “x”. And the math that solves for the unknowns is given the fancy name of “algebra”.
Grades 9+: The number of unknowns grow. And the number pattern relationships between x and y are represented in equations and visualized in graphs. The actual calculation doesn’t get any too much more advanced but understanding how to use the different techniques to explain functions become the key.
AP Level: Calculus is a way to add or reduce numbers in patterns quickly. And statistics is a way to organize and make sense of a large quantity of numbers. Both build upon all the prior math topics.
Students in high school start seeing the direct applications of math in their science subjects, especially in physics. A simple “F = ma” equation requires the understanding of algebra and various calculation techniques.
Help You Child See Math in Science – Adding the Cheese
Before Grade 8: Just like math, science starts as an exploratory and observational subject. It’s mostly facts in primary and middle school levels. For instance, water has three phases – liquid, gas, and solid. It can get boring and it’s not obvious how math is a part of the picture.
However, we, as parents can throw in the math. Water has three phases. Fine. Where’s the math in this fact? Ask you child, “how long does it take for the water to boil?” “Would it snow in today’s temperature?”
After awhile, It gets hard to explain science without math. We can help our children see the connection by asking science questions that start with: How much, how far, how fast, how deep, etc. At this point, it’s ok to not answer the questions with the actual math as they might not know enough math yet. But it definitely helps them develop computational thinking by brainstorming what math techniques can be done to answer the questions.
Grades 9+: Science turn from factual to more calculation oriented. Math is integrated to support the scientific theories as well as organize findings in labs.
AP Level, College and Above: The percentage of math in science get much larger, especially in engineering.
In all, math is learned as a tool to solve problems in life, including STEM. Before thinking about investing in STEM activities, understand the focus for your child’s grade level. Build the foundations strong before going fancy.
BOTTOM LINE: When the math is there, STEM naturally builds itself.