Homeschooled math nerd

This is a guest post by Jessica Baumgaertel.  I asked her for a bio, because I love bios:

After staying near home for college at the University of Washington, Jessica moved to NJ and is in her fifth year of the plasma physics Ph.D. program at Princeton. She volunteers with science education activities (such as the NJ Science Bowl). If she ever has children, she will probably homeschool them. She also likes to knit, run, bake, and hang out with her cat, Faraday. She blogs at Physikerin Knits.

I asked her to talk about math, and loving it, and being homeschooled, since I was homeschooled and hated math, and math is always the subject that grownups asked me about when they were trying to figure out whether or not homeschooling was a terrible idea. Here she is:

I loved being homeschooled. I loved to learn. I loved science. I loved to read. I didn’t particularly like to write, but it was okay. I loved the piano. I hated math.

Wait, you ask. What? This is post about LIKING math!

Okay, I only hated math until I was about 14.

It’s not that I couldn’t do math, I just didn’t enjoy it. My textbooks were boring. There were no pictures. The “story problems” were not nearly as riveting as my literature books. Fractions were a particular bane to my young existence. I have a vivid memory of sobbing to my dear, patient, frustrated mother that they were “completely useless”.

My parents spent a lot of time making science fun and trying to encourage me through my math woes.

Once a week, Mom taught supplemental hands-on science classes for about eighty home educated students. These classes were super fun social events (…and excellent opportunities to experience classrooms and group learning) with all of my friends. We got to dissect frogs, light chains of bulbs with batteries and wires, and mix chemicals to see bubbles/changing colors/explosions. While my end-of-the-year science fair projects weren’t too exciting, my brother once built a nail gun. It shot a nail out of a pen body.

(This is Jessica. She didn’t send me any images of the pen weapon)

After work, Dad often gave my siblings and I informal lectures on history, science, and math. [Weren’t we a cool family? Vacations were often just as hip: one summer, we visited every Lewis and Clark museum along the western half of the Columbia River.] I have another vivid memory of being twelve and sitting with my ten-year-old brother in front of the chalkboard. Dad outlined math. All of math, at least from basic math to calculus. Remember, twelve-year-old me HATED MATH, but my interest was piqued. Math was the language that described science. Maybe someday it would be not “completely useless”.

And then, I started algebra. I know this is often the point at which students completely lose interest in math, what with all the x’s and y’s and lines and curves. It’s even less useful, at face value, to the average person, than fractions are! My change of opinion was clearly not logical, but something clicked and I began to adore it. Manipulating the symbols to find relationships between them, solving problems by plotting curves to explain equations and finally plugging numbers into the equations in place of the symbols was like solving an intricate mystery. Perhaps spending almost ten years at this point filling my brain with musical symbols prepared it for this kind of math.

Just shy of my sixteenth birthday, I joined Washington State’s Running Start program and started taking community college classes. I was nervous to meet my first teachers who were not my mom, dad, or my friend’s mom. My first quarter, I took “college algebra”. The class was pretty easy–I had learned a good chunk of it the year before at home–and our professor was fantastic. He did “polynomial dancing”: he’d call out a simple equation, and we’d portray its graph with our bodies.* It was silly, but an effective and creative learning tool! (I think one hurdle to cultivating an interest in math is that it’s so often taught in a very dry, boring way.)

At this point, the question was: should I become a concert pianist or a mathematician? Taking calculus and music theory solved that problem for me: I am much better at solving integrals than hearing intervals.

At the university, I found out that physics is actually even more awesome than math, so now I am in grad school, on my way to being a physicist. But math is still the beautiful language which describes my world!

*Like the graph y=x^2 is:

And she does:


Or the graph is y=-x^3:


And she does:


*  *   *

Wild fun list (from Jess): Bundle up, get peppermint hot chocolate, and walk (or drive) around looking at holiday decorations. Or: spin around in an office chair and then have office-chair-races down the hall.

3 comments to Homeschooled math nerd

  • Hehehe I’m doing that stuff in Algebra 2/Trig. I feel smart because I actually know how to manipulate these graphs… sorta. 😛

  • High School Student

    Great post, but I hated algebra! :/ I took it as an eighth grader and we had a pretty terrible teacher. I’m taking Geometry/Trig now and I’m like, Geometry isn’t so easy once you’re out of elementary! 😛 I’m just finally getting stuff like tangent, sine, cosine, etc… they’re really helpful, though, once you understand. x)

  • Ahh! And you’re a physicist too! I think I love you.

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