Reframing How We Think About Math And Science For Our Kids

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When I was 5 years old, I wanted to be Michael Jackson.

I asked for a “Thriller” jacket for Christmas and remember an entire summer where I carried around my Fisher Price record player with my Billie Jean single ready to go. Eventually, I discovered that I could neither sing nor dance well, and I set my sights on something more attainable for a tone-deaf, rhythm-less girl like myself: pediatric medicine.

Next Christmas, I asked for a doctor’s kit. Instead of a record player, I carried around my doctor’s bag, stocked with a fake stethoscope, an ace bandage, and copious amounts of Band-Aids. I would consult with my patients (my Cabbage Patch doll, Tabitha, had a host of curable ailments for me to tackle) and then perform procedures on them to get them on the path to miraculous healing.

But then my younger sister died.

And everything changed.

I realized that sometimes children couldn’t be healed with a bandage and a lollipop -- that sometimes, they couldn’t be healed at all. I decided pediatric medicine wasn’t for me, but still eager for a career in the medical field, I decided to look to my next love: puppies!

I’m sure you can guess how that ended, but I wasn’t discouraged.

I moved on to physical therapy, dentistry, orthodontics, psychiatry, and finally, just before high school, I decided I’d like to become a pharmacist. And then, I had this really terrible experience in math. The content was challenging, and the teacher was unsupportive. While I was able to salvage a reasonable grade in the class, with only slight damage to my GPA, my confidence in math was gravely damaged. I officially deemed myself bad at math and swore off all things even remotely related, including science.

When I finally graduated and went on to university, I didn’t pursue my dreams of becoming a medical doctor. Instead, I chose to major in Criminology and minor in Education because the graduation requirements meant I could take things like “statistics for research” and “science for non-majors” -- things my math-averse brain could manage.

It wasn’t until grad school, where I was fortunate to get an instructor whose goal was to prove that there’s no such thing as being “bad at math,” that I was able to recover. She taught us that, as teachers, we had to reframe how we thought about math and science. We needed to be open to more than one right answer and encourage ourselves and our students to be curious, explorative, and confident. She taught us to all think like scientists, to imagine that there are millions of possibilities, and to be open to exploring them all.

I finished that course with an A and a new lease on life. I made a vow to my future children (both those I gave birth to and those I would teach in future classes) that they would never feel like they couldn’t understand things, no matter the topic. I would spark their curiosity with interesting, relatable topics, and above all else, I would believe in them.

Fast-forward some 15 years. I am no longer in the classroom impacting children, but I have three of my own whose creativity and curiosity are mine to nurture. Three sons. Three vastly different but remarkably the same, young boys to grow and mold into future leaders. In today’s America, where things like Black Lives Matter have grown out of necessity, and people feel their lives are threatened daily because of the color of their skin, it’s a daunting task.

I want my little brown boys to have all of the opportunities other children do. And while I can’t stop racism or prejudice or any of the systematic things that seem to get in the way of greatness, I can help them achieve their best. I can give them what they need to not fear, to set goals (and know they can achieve them), to appreciate education, to be confident in the face of adversity, to be kind in the face of evil, and to be exactly who they want to be without any concern for the people who may try to stop them.

But to do that, they need tools.

Tools that will let them know that, in the face of challenge, adversity, and even evil, they will have what they need to feel and be successful. Confidence is one of those tools. For us, building that has been simple -- a mix of love, support, responsibilities, consequences, opportunities to succeed, and even opportunities to fail. I tell them to take chances, to trust themselves, to work hard, and to be curious.

Ask questions. Seek answers. Wonder. Investigate. Explore.

I encourage them to read, to play, to get outside and have adventures, and to find things they are passionate about. Oddly enough, Pinterest is responsible for my youngest son’s undying interest in science. He discovered the platform while using my iPad one afternoon last summer. While most kids would’ve navigated away, he was curious and typed “science experiments” into the search bar. He discovered page after page of science experiments he could perform in my kitchen, and, after an hour of “ooh”-ing and “ahh”-ing, he had a list of products for me to get him from the store. By evening, he was making his first science video for Facebook.

Sometimes that’s just what it takes. A spark.

A year later and he is still performing his own at-home science experiments. While my kitchen and Facebook have probably had enough of his antics, I am happy to note that his brain and his curiosity remain unsatisfied... as they should.

Raising Curious & Confident Kids is a new blog series geared towards ushering in the next generation of leaders in science, tech, engineering, art, and mathematics (STEAM). How can we give children the curiosity to question and more confidence to create? Let us know at inspirationgeneration@huffingtonpost.com.