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"but math is just fancy common sense" - my math professor

cnewville's picture

Christine Newville

Inquiry Project

Multicultural Education


                                                I’m Not a Math Person


Crossing over into the humanities was a chance opportunity for me in college. I never planned on majoring or studying anything other than science beyond taking the required classes necessary. However, once I found that the balance and the change in conversation were refreshing and opened so many more doors for me than I had anticipated. I began to ask my other friends in both science and math department but as well as social sciences and humanities departments about how frequently they ‘crossed over’ into other departments. I am defining crossing over in terms of there being three major groups, math and science (chemistry, calculus, biology, etc.) , social science (economy, political science, anthropology, etc.), and humanities (History, English, art history, etc.). I found that many of my friends in the math and sciences did crossover, have concentrations or minors in English, a language, or a social science. When asked about this, the answer has always been related to balance: having a pure science and math schedule is too dense and one-sided. Students who were taking a pure science and math schedule were overwhelmed, while those who took a English class, an environmental sustainability class, an education class enjoyed working another side of their brain and having class discussions on morality and theory, they enjoyed reading and writing reflections, even if it took them longer than they were used to in a science based class. When I asked friends who were not science or math majors if they ever took classes in “park” (i.e. a ‘hard’ science course) they had generally only taken one: the required course to graduate. When asked about balance in their semester, they had balance, even though all their classes were the same format: reading, essays, and discussions, no problem sets or lab projects. Most did not have a strong aversion to math or science, they acknowledged that they were important but often said with a laugh “I’m not a math person” or “I don’t do science”. They have completely eliminated taking science courses; on the basis of they don't personally find them important enough to push through. While I find it quite challenging to read 40 pages before each class and have complex understanding and conversations in humanities classes, I still enroll in classes where I know I will be either on my toes or having to abandon my comfort zone to participate in the class, but I do this because I think the discussion and content of these classes to be fundamentally building my perspective of the world. I believe that every student should engage in conversation on race and critical analyze texts in a class, which is something often lacking from science and math courses. I cannot imagine my education without this participation in the humanities and introspection that comes with it.

Still, I have often heard the complaint or harsh observation that science and math majors don't care about the world around them, they don't understand the messages of contemporary literature, participate in conversations of equality, and don't see the importance of social justice. But why is it unacceptable to be unaware of social justice issues, but not understand climate change and how to model and reverse it? I found myself asking why people develop this identity of anti-math and science. I wanted to look into, using desire based inquiry, how to foster a science and math inclusive identity and how to create an environment that would teach students of all different background and learning objectives. I am not attempting to find a classroom where every graduate will become a chemical engineer or climatologist, but rather a classroom full of students who will be more inclined to take a math or science class to further and strengthen their own background and learning in anthropology or any other non-science and math subject, and what that classroom would look like. I want to understand why one type of learner and person has been traditionally successful in current science courses, and why other learners, typically women and students of color, choose to study something without any connection to math or science.


I decided to look into several articles that follow a particular trajectory in trying to figure out where educational experts found holes and opportunities in classrooms to promote a science and math appreciation. Many articles coined this as “positive attitudes towards science”, with the belief that with a personal positive attitude toward science and math, students would be more inclined to continue their learning and investigation in these areas. I then tried to find several articles that elaborated on comments from my science and math prone friends on what inspired them to continue with sciences. I also looked into newer pedagogical approaches in science and math classes to understand better how to promote and encourage students of all preferences to participate in a science and math classroom and to feel that their presence was important and necessary for the class- rather than them having to play keep up and force interest in the subject.


The articles “Relations of Student, Teacher, and Learning Environment Variables to attitude toward Mathematics” by Joan Shaughnessy et al, and “Relations of Student Teacher, and Learning Environment to attitudes toward Science” by Tom Haladyna et al, examined the multiple variables that could control a student's attitude toward math and sciences. Both studies looked and used the same research model and data to conclude their research, and both had similar outcomes. The main focus was asking why a poor attitude toward math or science could lead to poor performances and a reduced enrollment of students in scientific and technological fields in college. They aimed to understand, in detail, what fostered a heightened attitude and also what were barriers in learning that prevented a positive attitude.

In their study they observed that different genders had the sharpest decline in interest in different grades. Males generally developed a dislike toward math around 7th grade, while females usually developed this attitude in 9th grade and a dislike toward science in 4th grade for boys and 7th grade for girls (Shaughnessy et al 22, Haladyna et al 678). They then explained this was why studies could not focus on one year, and ‘remedial’ classes could not solely be based in one grade, rather any correction and efforts had to be spread over the entire education of a student.

They divided the factors into two main categories: exogenous and endogenous. Exogenous variables included factors that are outside the classroom, such as gender identity, class mobility, and economic position. Both of these studies note that their research base was spaced over a broad socioeconomic range and had an even distribution of both female and male students. Both studies also noted that the majority of the students survived were white (Shaughnessy et al 25, Haladyna et al 674). The other category, that of endogenous variables, were that which a teacher or school has control over, such as teaching environment, class size, enthusiasm of teacher, etc. They concluded that endogenous variables to have the highest control over student attitudes towards and science math, rather than exogenous variables (Shaughnessy et al, 23). Evaluating a multitude of different areas including; Student Motivation (fatalism, academic self-concept, importance of math), Teacher Quality (enthusiasm, respect, commitment, individual attention, fairness, and praise and reinforcement), Social-Psychological (enjoyment of class, environment, cliques, friction), Management, and Attitude toward Mathematics ( Shaughnessy et al,  26) as well as Parental Involvement (Haladyna et al, 677).


Both studies determined students were more affected by two main factors: fatalism and teacher/classroom quality. Haladyna et al noted that the attitude of the teacher had a strong correlation for students’ attitude toward the subject, noting that science and math teachers come from a wide array of backgrounds, whether they are a science enthusiast, professional scientists, etc. They looked into how the strengths of the teacher translated pedagogically and how this could affect their students positively or negatively (674). Self-confidence (fatalism) seemed to be the largest factor in students who had a negative outlook on math and sciences, while a good quality teaching environment lead to students who had the largest positive attitudes toward science and math ( Shaughnessy et al 31-32,  Haladyna et al, 680). They noted that students who experiences fatalism might “perceive mathematics as a subject which ‘happens’ to them rather than as a subject in which their work and efforts can determine success” (32). Shaughnessy et all then discussed, which echoes Haladyna et al, the fine details between male and female students, saying that the quality of the teacher was a stronger control for female student in lower grades, but then became less important as they were in higher grades, while males had better success at later grades with higher quality teachers, the same was true for class organization and environment. This was a strong argument that science and math classes needed to have strong teaching environments and counteract fatalism in students over a span of years in order to have the largest effect, rather than concentrated in one year which has the potential of missing and providing gaps in a student’s educational support (32). They suggested that schools try and understand learning environments in a multitude of ways, as one lens or method is not reliable for all students of all ages, as well as work on teacher enrichment to identify and correct classroom problems that affect achievements and attitudes of students (35).


The third investigation that I read about student’s perceptions of science took a different approach to understanding the origin of interest in the sciences. ‘Classroom Environments and Middle School Student’s Views of Science’ by Jeffrey T. Fouts et al took the study of exogenous and endogenous variables affecting student learning and attitude one step further by critically examining what kinds of classrooms were best, rather than just stating ‘good’ classrooms were more productive. They state, in the first few pages of their article that the importance of making a deliberate effort toward positive attitudes in classrooms are:

“First, attitude seems to be related to achievement and may actually enhance cognitive development. Second, students with a positive attitude toward a subject are more likely to want to extend their learning in that field, both formally and informally, after the direct influence of the teacher has ended. Third, attitude is often communicated to peers in a variety of ways throughout life. A negative attitude may result in lack of support for science and decreased resources for scientific study of society’s problems. (929)”

This observation is a powerful step by step observation linking a positive attitude toward science linking to future implications rather than grades, but toward a more informed citizen and complete approach to education. They concluded that the best kinds of environment for a positive attitude was classrooms with high levels of involvement, student collaboration and affiliation, high teacher support, and organization and order in the classroom, along with innovative teaching strategies and low teacher control ( 936). They also speculated between the difference between elective classes (physics, chemistry) and typically required science courses (biology). They thought that students who opted to take more science courses would typically have a higher attitude toward the class, but also observed that required classes can also have positive attitudes due to high levels of student involvement, affiliation, supports, etc. (936). They also proposed that a teacher’s background could have a strong influence on the classroom. They suggested for creating an environment conducive of positive attitudes teachers could have more hands on activities, student relevant topics to encourage engagement, cooperative learning, supportive communication, and an organized classroom.


After having numerous conversation with friends about their history with science and what motivated them to continue their scientific and mathematical learning, I looked into literature of what might support their backgrounds and try to understand how to apply this on a more widespread and tangible scale.  First I looked into one of the most traditional motivational science activities that school foster and many of my peers talked about: Science fairs.

    There is little research on the benefits of science fairs, aside from the widespread belief that this form of project based learning supports students’ personal inquiry and pride in their scientific growth.  The article “The Impact of Involvement in a Science fair on Seventh Grade Students” by Senay Yasar and Dale Baker examines the benefits and the dangers of participation in obligatory and optional science fairs. Their study found that science fairs actually did little to improve and promote scientific understanding and attitude toward science (9). The notes that science fairs actually have more of a potential to harm a student’s love of science than promote it.

They observed that the competition and widespread bias of judging actually countered any positive outcomes. As judging and grading a project-based learning project is very difficult, few judges and teachers are able to fully grade students learning accurately (3). They claimed that the winners of science fairs often depend on the same few factors: use of outside resources and easy access to those resources, parental occupational class, cost of project, and compulsory vs. voluntary participation (3). They also observed that according to gender stereotypes (which is problematic, I realize), girls had a lesser chance of benefiting from science fairs on the axis of competition, as they are more prone to collaborative learning and are less driven to order themselves in hierarchical manners, i.e. have a winner in the group (4). Baker and Yasar also stipulated that science fairs were a source of anxiety for students who might not feel the most comfortable in that subject, furthering their distance from science and math (4). They concluded that science fairs have no effect in the understanding of scientific method and attitudes towards science, and educators should focus on “environments and activities that encourage all students... to enjoy science and to develop a scientifically literate society” (7). Reflecting with my peers who had fond memories of science fairs, I asked them how they had done and there was a common theme, they had all won and they liked it.


I then looked into different ways to educate and teach students that would have a more productive end. I found two articles, among many, that have the same idea and theory behind science fairs and project based, non-traditional science classes and learning, but without the high-risk learning and biases results it inherently has. In the article “ Exploring the role of schools in the development of sustainable communities” by Barry Percy-Smith et al, not only do they focus on how schools can have a serious impact in communities by realizing their students potential as agents in their own community (16), but they also analyzed how students who were “involved in inquiry, analysis, planning, decision-making, taking action and evaluation action - all within the same research process” (19) could have the same pedagogical benefits of a science fair and potentially more, but without the drawbacks. The argue that this relevance toward their everyday realities (20), leadership opportunities (21), practical and experiential learning (22), will only “increase engagement and ownership amongst students in ways that promote higher levels of agency, creativity and action (23).  This theory of education stems from Place Based education and the question of how an identity can be shaped around the communities and place around us. In “Place-Based Education and Practice: Observations from the Field” by Robert Barrat and Elizabeth Barratt hacking, they examine how using a place based educational approach to pedagogy, students could envision themselves as active agents and have a greater control on their own learning, motivating them to be engaged in the learning (4). They then look at community collaborators which suggest when projects are carried out in the community by taking the classroom and students into real life situations, the students in turn have a deeper learning, greater participation and sense of civic responsibility and access to real world problem solving (7).


This deeper learning and identification with science and community could not only allow students to learn in a real world context and provide them the scientific inquiry that project places learning does, but could also access more students than traditional science classrooms do. Place based education requires much more than just pure science, it requires outreach to the community, presentation, and discussion of relevancy and impact on their own community. Students would have the space and opportunity to bring other strengths into their classroom, talk about social justice and how to write about their learning, something a humanities and social science driven person would excel in. The outreach of the community would help students see the importance and relevance of their learning, as well as making it accessible. Instead of having science ‘happen to them’ they would be the agents of change and learning, they would choose how to study the material and what the next steps of their project would be. Students would be able to see how science and math are tools to critically examine the world around them, much like any subject in the humanities.

If I was to continue this inquiry project and take it one or two step forward, I would look into place based community initiatives to examine and see how their students think about science before and afterwards. It would be interesting to look at what schools are already doing this and to what level have they integrated it into their curriculum.  I would also like to examine if this could be achieved out of the classroom and though after school clubs and organizations, the same level of engagement and access to a broad range of students and backgrounds.

Work cited:


Barratt, Robert and Elisabeth Barratt Hacking (2011). “Place-Based Education and Practice: Observations from the Field.” Children, Youth and Environments 21(1): 1-13. Retrieved [4/12/2014] from

Fouts, Jeffrey T., and Raymond E. Myers, III. "Classroom Environments and Middle School Students' Views of Science." The Journal of Research in Science Teaching 29.9 (1992): 929-37. Print.

Haladyna, Tom, Robert Olsen, and Joan Shaughnessy. "Relations of Student, Teacher, and Learning Environment Variables to Attitudes Toward Science." Science Education 66.5 (1982): 671-87. Web.

Mascarelli, Amanda Leigh. "Science Fairs: Teaching Students to Think like Scientists." Science News for Students. Student Science, n.d. Web. 17 Apr. 2014.

Percy-Smith, Barry et al (2009). Exploring the role of schools in the development of Sustainable Communities: Full Research ReportESRC End of Award Report, RES-182-25-0038. Swindon: ESR

Shaughnessy, Joan, Tom Haladyna, and J. Michael Shaughnessy. "Relations of Student, Teacher, and Learning Environment Variables to Attitude toward Mathematics." School Science and Mathematics 83.1 (1983): 21-36. Print.

Yasar, Senay, and Dale Baker. "The Impact of Involvement in a Science Fair on Seventh Grade Students." (2003): 1-10. Web. 17 Apr. 2014. <>.


People who I interviewed/talked directly to about their science and math backgrounds and identity:


Fern Beetle-Croft (geology)

Claudia Delaplace (Art History)

Victor Donnay (professor of math)

 Sarah Glass (geology)

Leah Kahler (anthropology)

Shelby Kehoe (psychology)

Danyelle Phillips (geology)

Meg Sumner-Moore (geology/ pre-med)

Aliza Taft (archaeology, geology)

Along with numerous other casual lunch/geology computer room conversations