My learning journey

People ask me often how I got involved with education. In part, my interest in learning stems from thinking about my own learning journey, and taking lessons from that path.

In school I did pretty well in every subject. Getting good grades was just expected. I was a solid B+ student in all subjects from kindergarten on. When I took Algebra 1 in ninth grade, though, that changed unexpectedly. Suddenly I knew everything the teacher was going to say before he said it. I always had time to do all the extra credit problems when we were only supposed to choose one. The teacher finally told me to cut it out. I spent every day on the phone with friends talking them through the homework problems. It bothered me somewhat that none of my friends were getting it, but I didn’t think much of it. It was just what I did – like my best friend who could magically draw perfect horses.

I was a good, complaint kid. When you are good at school type stuff and do what you are told, they say you are smart. But, for me at least, I never felt smart or special, it was normal to just get up every morning, go to school, and do whatever they said to do.

In high school I had the same math teacher for two years in a row and one day he called me up as the bell was ringing and said, “There’s not much that’s challenging you, is there?” He gave me a brochure for a summer program at a university for gifted math students. I was shocked that he thought that about me. I’d never thought of myself as being particularly good at math, it was just easy. It honestly never dawned on me that my friends not understanding meant something about me.

I keep this in mind when I work with kids – they are massively clueless about themselves and massively egocentric all at the same time. They do not realize that what they perceive about the world may actually be a reflection of their own talents. They have to be explicitly told what it is about them that is special. This does not mean blanket feel-good statements, that’s a waste of time. When you announce “You’re special!” to a room full of people, it’s obviously not true. That’s true at any age.

It takes a lot of adults talking with children, not at children, to help them realize that their own talents are unique and valuable.

It’s amazing that my parents let me go to that summer math program. I had never been away from my parents, didn’t participate in any after-school activities except music lessons, and had never gone to camp. This was going to be six weeks at a dorm on a college campus 100 miles from home. It was BIG.

That summer I met some amazing people from all over the US. The program was funded by the NSF and we took three college level math courses over the six weeks: Geometry, Number Theory, and Computer Science. We built geometry from the ground up, explored weird puzzle-like theories, and I got my first exposure to computers using punch cards and FORTRAN. And we stayed up late and ate ice cream for dinner and did the usual sorts of things 16 year olds do when away from their parents.

I discovered an amazing thing—I belonged. At my high school it was quite apparent that I didn’t belong. But that summer, I was just one of many like me. Even better, I was right in the middle of the pack. I wasn’t the smartest, but I wasn’t the slowest either. I wasn’t the geekiest or the coolest. It felt comfortable in a way that high school never had. I had talents that other people envied like being able to debug the FORTRAN programs. I needed other people because the Geometry was painful for me. The rule for Geometry class was that all of us had to prove ALL the theories. In Computer Science, we didn’t move on until everyone’s program worked. We weren’t supposed to copy each other’s work, but we could help each other and talk about it. There was no competition, no grades, and no tests. It was the perfect learning environment.

When I came home and it was time to apply to colleges, I didn’t know what major I would choose. I guessed that math would probably be a good major since I was good at it, so I might as well. It was a lucky chance that my parents asked my uncle to talk to me about my decision. Unlike my parents, he’d been to college, so he would know.

He asked me what I liked about math, and I said solving the problems. He asked, real problems or theories and proofs. Real problems, I said. Aha, he said, you should be an engineer. And as ridiculously simple as that sounds, that’s exactly what I did.

I keep in mind even today when I work with students and teachers is how seemingly insignificant comments and events can change a child’s life forever — if it’s specific and part of a real conversation.

In the years since I’ve been an electrical engineer in aerospace, a programmer, a student again, a designer and developer of video games and educational software, a manager, head of a non-profit, a mom, and more. But through it all I know that engineering (meaning solving real problems) is the lens through which I view the world and the way I approach the world. And I thank all the inexplicable events and people who helped me along this path.

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