My son Eric began high school this year (grade 9) and a marvelous thing happened. In my previous posts, I lamented that I was generally unable to spark in him an interest in math but something changed this year. The first sign was his first math test given within the first two weeks of the new year. It was an assessment of sorts to see who knows what, and he scored 90%. Although it was a review of basic arithmetic with complicated fractions, order of operations, and such, this was the first time he had ever ranked within the top few of his class in math. Fast forward a few days. He came up to me with a large grin and said “Dad, you’re in my math text book!” Actually it wasn’t me but there was an indirect reference to Maple in one of the later chapters of the book that he was perusing out of curiosity (another good sign). “This is your stuff isn’t it?” With tears welling up inside, I proudly answered “yes.”
In some ways, in a scant few days, Eric went from total indifference to math to a real desire to figure out what all the noise is about. Why does everyone think that math is so important? We adults have been screaming the importance of math at our children for decades and every young generation has struggled to understand why. Even if you are fascinated by space and technology, which everyone says is math-based, there is no way most kids can make the connection between those romantic things and the arithmetic they learn at school.
The above is a long preamble to the main point of my post: algebra is a critical milestone in the development of a true appreciation of mathematics. Following his first arithmetic test, Eric was introduced to the letter ‘x’, basic polynomial operations, among other things. The tests started getting harder and expectedly, some kids in his class began tuning out, but for some reason he was intrigued by two things: the great feeling when you do well on a test, and the weird complexities of this thing called algebra. And this resulted in continued good performance on his tests.
For me the significance of algebra in the universe unfolded over the span of 20 years from the first time I was introduced to the letter ‘x’. For me it was all about modeling. Algebra, and later its sibling field calculus, provide brilliant tools to express and investigate the movements and intricacies of our world. But for those of us who developed a life-long fascination with math, it all seems to start with the sense of pride that you, uniquely, are adept at the complicated, often delicate operations that you first learn in high school.
In a singularly proud moment, I presented Eric with his own copy of Maple. I gave him a stern warning that he was not to actually use it to do his homework for him but he was welcome to use it to check his answers or to explore topics that he’s not studying in his class. It’s still too early to tell how a grade nine kid works a professional tool like Maple into his life … with his competing interests at school and his social life, his dad’s company’s product is not likely to get the lion’s share of his attention. But he did seem genuinely intrigued. I’m sure there will be more interesting reports in future posts.
Eric is taking his first critical steps to cross that algebraic divide that exists in our society. This divide prevents bright kids and adults from participating in many different kinds of careers, hobbies, and most importantly, one of the most significant forms of human knowledge ever created. Eric and I are very fortunate that I was able to cross the divide years ago (with a lot of help from family, teachers, and friends). And now, I can help him make this same crossing. Ultimately, I don’t really care if he chooses not to become an engineer or scientist but it would be sad if he never experienced the expressive elegance of differential equations.