I’m going to have a busy day today so I’ll provide this entertaining essay instead of something involving painting. Maybe tomorrow…

Let’s see. STEM. “STEM” stands for (I think) “science, technology, engineering and, um… math?” It’s a new buzz phrase/acronym that’s used to describe what girls do not do adequately for various mysterious reasons. It’s a big deal that girls don’t do STEM and your tax dollars are at work in the USA to make sure that all girls know that STEM is a good field. Really. It is.

But I think I know why girls don’t like STEM, and, shockingly, it’s not because doing STEM would threaten the ego of the football-throwing stud that every girl secretly knows is really a sensitive poet at heart, once you get past some silly insecurity regarding the summation of two two’s (a confusing business, I admit).

No, the girls who are hung up on the football guy aren’t really going to do STEM anyway. Let’s just face that fact right now. They’re not worried that the class alpha doesn’t understand string theory, they’re worried that he doesn’t understand string. So let’s not waste more time on that. The truly nerdy girls don’t like STEM because it resembles a sort of confidence game, and females are usually very sensitive to being duped. More than males. They are genetically programmed to want to avoid all situations where masculine “wiles” may entice them to do something for unknown reasons. Stuff like that can get you pregnant and not in a good way.

So what is it about STEM that’s dishonest and sneaky? After all, the average guy thinks it’s all hard numbers and long division and other double entendres of the right sort. It’s good, solid science, right? What could be wrong?

Well, if it’s good, solid, science then it seems to go out of its way to seem like a con-job during the critical stage of teaching and learning when girls decide that STEM is not for them.

Examples? You want examples? Funny you should ask.

Let’s take the ultimate nightmare-inducing “word problem” that terrorizes all those who claim to be math-challenged. I’m talking about the train. The Hell Train. It leaves the station in New York at four o’clock heading west, bound for Los Angeles three thousand miles away at an average speed of sixty miles per hour. Another train, traveling on the same track, leaves the station in Los Angeles heading east an hour later. It’s average speed is fifty miles per hour. Question: at what time will the two trains collide in a fiery explosion?

The answer to this damn thing, if it has any kind of answer at all, is to calculate at what point in time the two trains are the same distance from New York (or Los Angeles). That’s the big mystery. How long does it take two things traveling along the same route in opposite directions to arrive at the same place, relative to a single, stationary point of reference.

It’s simple algebra, and I’ll leave the “solution” to the student.

But.

It’s a bogus question. Firstly, it adds a blizzard of B.S. in the form of trains, time zones, distances, unpleasant American cities and a fiery explosion that somebody should be working to stop, not enabling by solving this stupid puzzle.

It’s also dishonest.

It’s the “average speed” thing. We all know (I hope) that trains speed up and slow down and that they do not maintain the same speed at all times. It’s impossible to solve this puzzle UNLESS you use the “average” speed. And that’s where the dishonesty of all sleazy grad students who write problems for text books comes in.

If you know the average speed, then, by God, you already know the answer to the question being asked. You can’t calculate the average speed unless you know how far the trains traveled, and if you know that, you already know when the fiery collision happened and what about the children in that collision? Ever think of that, Mr. Grad Student?

If the person asking the question already knows the answer, and USED that knowledge to formulate the question, then that right there is a problem. It may not seem like a huge lie, but it IS. If you formulate a question by taking part of the answer out of context and re-introducing it at an artificially early stage in the process of problem-solving, then you, sir, are a crook, and should be designing puppies with shark DNA or finagling real estate deals for your Satanic Overlords.

You shouldn’t be writing math textbooks.

This may not seem like a “big deal” at first, but let’s consider that it’s basically dishonest to dress up a simple algebra problem as a long-winded puzzle like this in order to “prove” how “practical” math can be. It’s a lie. Actually, it’s more like a huge stretch. If I have to stretch my puzzle to the breaking point in order to prove the point that math is practical, then, maybe, possibly, it isn’t all that practical. If I can’t use it to do something sensible without having to “suspend disbelief” then maybe I should go ahead and disbelieve.

I know that this is simple problem and a truly “real world” example would be, you know, hard. But I think that girls, in particular, are good at waiting for the real deal, and not just insisting that an approximation is good enough. They’ll be happy to wade through the math required to solve a “real” problem. What they don’t like is the idea that each and every math problem in the book is “fixed” in some way to further a hidden agenda. They don’t like being bamboozled. They don’t like having to “just ignore” certain things in order to “get through it.” They really don’t like that.

Furthermore, it doesn’t stop in math class. Once you memorize the mumbo-jumbo needed to do puzzles like the Hell Train, you go to physics class where, incredibly, they also “suspend” the rules (no friction, no gravity, no air, etc.) in order to further an agenda. By the time to you get to grad school and study quantum physics you’re ready to swallow anything. Maybe that’s the idea?

Math isn’t bad. Math education is bad. It’s full of assumptions and “just do it” work ethic that solves nothing and helps no one. In a world where women are questioning the very nature of our technology, it just doesn’t work to tell girls to “get with it” and start answering the questions asked by men for unknown reasons and containing a host of assumptions that don’t make sense.

When and where do those trains meet? In your head, math dude. Only in your head.

1 Comment

  1. Brushpainter

    I’m commenting on my own blog in order to add something important to the above. It’s very true that I do not know the answer to the above puzzle. I didn’t need to know it in order to pull two “average speeds” out of my hat. So my contention that the inventor of the puzzle “already knows the answer” is based on how a reasonable woman might view the puzzle, if the puzzle is taken seriously at all. On the other hand, if I just “made it up” then I “just made up” the average speed numbers and THAT is just as dishonest. It’s artificial. It “smells” fishy to just “dream up” numbers and plug them in (just as I did above). It SHOULD smell fishy. It’s not a real question. It’s a phony, false, dishonest question. No matter how you analyze it, it’s wrong. But it’s particularly offensive to women, I believe, because the guy who invented the puzzle may not even know that he did anything wrong.

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