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Are You Sure You’re Not a ‘Math Person’?

August 23, 2010

BMCC math major Noelle Belhumeur never thought of herself as a “math person.”

She grew up in Connecticut, then Indiana, then moved to New York. “When I was in high school,” she says, “I was not good in math. I believe that my algebra teacher passed me just so she wouldn’t get stuck with me again the next semester.”

At BMCC, Belhumeur started with, as she puts it, “the lowest math class that you can possibly take--you learn how to multiply and divide, basically.”

And then something happened.

“My professor suggested that I move into the math department,” says Belhumeur,  “And as he put it, I didn’t want to count every penny for the rest of my life, now did I?”

Her joke belies an underlying reality--that workers in fields requiring science or math training, “tend to be well paid and enjoy better job security than do other workers,” according to Why So Few?, a 2010 report by the American Association of University Women--which also notes that women hold only one-quarter or fewer positions in those fields.

Belhuemer, who has worked as a licensed hair stylist for the last 16 years, enrolled at BMCC to give herself more employment options.

“So I took my second math class,” she says, “and I thoroughly enjoyed mathematics. I realized that I was good in math, but I also realized that I wanted to learn it this time; I didn’t want to repeat what I did in high school, which was just get by… and I didn’t want to struggle and feel stupid.”

The right to learn math

“What I like about math,” says Belhumeur, “is the patterns that it creates, how one topic leads into another. It’s constantly building and evolving--and it’s very precise. Math isn't required in my current job, but I do lean toward precision haircutting, and I now see how precision as well as order are reflected in mathematics."

She plans to apply her math skills someday in a non-profit organization, “perhaps going into statistics,” and says with some amazement, “Now I’m studying pre-calculus.”

There’s something defiant--even political--about overcoming an unsuccessful math history, which can deeply affect a person’s ability to thrive, economically. Renown math educator and founder of the U.S. Algebra Project, Bob Moses argues that learning math is a person’s right; that "the demands of a high-tech age make math literacy as much an issue today as voting was in the Jim Crow South half a century ago."

Belhumeur, who now feels optimistic about her math ability, advises other potential math majors, “You have to put in the time. If you miss a class, you miss a major piece of the story. You have to ask questions in class; you have to do your homework, and you have to go to class--because if you don’t, you’re going to fall behind, and eventually quit.”

She adds that at BMCC, "math lab is always open for students to receive free tutoring, and I have found that fellow classmates are very willing to explain a problem to a student that is having trouble."

The dance of math

BMCC student Luis Almanzar, like Belhumeur, didn’t start his college career with the intention of being a math major.

“I was in Liberal Arts,” he says, “and after I went to Algebra 056, I started liking math. My professor, Alla Morgulis made me see the importance of math, and that’s why I changed. I realized that I love math, and that I want to be dealing with math for the rest of my life.”

Almanzar also credits BMCC’s inclusive, participatory learning environment for math, one that makes a space for students’ questions, and enables step-by-step understanding that builds toward larger concepts.

As Morgulis writes in the Fall 2009 issue of Inquirer, a BMCC faculty journal, “Personally, I treat teaching and learning just like dancing: whereby I have to ‘lead’ inexperienced ‘dancers’ to follow the steps of a structured routine. A well choreographed routine will allow the students to gain confidence in their first steps and build on that for the challenges ahead.”  

Almanzar, who grew up in the Dominican Republic and moved to the Bronx when he was nine years old, is building on his first math steps with more advanced classes.

“In pre-calculus,” he says, “I’m learning trigonometry, domain, range, exponential functions, and stuff like that. And in discrete math, I’m learning graph theory.”

The growth mindset

Someday, Almanzar wants to be a math instructor, himself. “The level of math that I would like to teach is from 9th grade to 12th grade,” he says, “I would like to help the students, tutor them after school.”

His belief in his own, and others’ ability to learn math--with the right supports in place--reflects what Carol Dweck, a developmental psychologist at Stanford University would refer to as a “growth mindset,” viewing intelligence as something that can be developed through effort--as opposed to a “fixed mindset,” which sees intellectual ability as an uncontrollable trait.

Almanzar’s encouraging advice to students considering math as their major is similar to Belhumeur’s.

“Stay focused,” he says. “I don’t just come to school--I come to school, take math, and then I go to my house and study math for like an hour every day. Because it’s kind of tricky and difficult, and people have to really study, really hard--and that’s my only advice for them. They will be great.”

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  • BMCC students Noelle Belhumeur and Luis Almanzar never thought they could do math--and now it’s their major
  • Their secret? A “growth mindset,” or belief in their ability to learn; hard work and the right instruction
  • The results are math proficiency now, and career options, later

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