If you walk into a high school, chances are good that you’ll hear some student groaning about math class. Math is one of the most hated subjects in the world. According to GrantWiggins, an educational survey site, Math ranked first in Least Favorite Subjects among high school students.
But why? Why is it that math seems so distant from understanding? Dr. Eugenia Cheng, a mathematician, hopes to uncover the blanket of numbers and complications covering mathematics.
When asked to do a simple yet long calculation problem on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, Dr. Cheng replied, “See, I can’t do this because I’m a mathematician, not a calculator.” “Math is actually not just about numbers.”
Her statement sums up why students seem to hate math so much. If mathematicians are more concerned with the explanations and reasons behind the numbers, why are high school students expected to crunch the numbers all the time without a calculator? Most high schoolers are expected to do long calculations with memorized formulas while their teachers barely explain why the formulas work, why this is important to know, and why it actually matters. It results in 4 years of learning complicated concepts that most people never use in their lives again.
Dr. Cheng stated in a Tedx Talk, “The trouble is that education stifles curiosity. It asks children to accept things as being true just because somebody told them … School math is taught as a bunch of rules that you have to follow.” She wishes to eliminate the pure memorization aspect that mostly defines mathematics. “Mathematics is not numbers. It’s not equations. It’s not even calculus or something like that. I think mathematics is the study of how logical things work.”
Through her new book, How to Bake Pi, she applies mathematics through unexpected means: baking. Dr. Cheng finds millions of ways to apply logical reasoning to something fun like baking, a very different approach from memorizing formulas in high school Calculus. “When people say that they’re terrible at mathematics, maybe they’re just terrible at school maths.”
She proceeds to list a series of myths about math such as “Myth: ‘Math is all about numbers.’” and corrects them using comparisons to baking. “You might think that rice cookers are for cooking rice. This is true, but the same piece of equipment can be used for other things as well: making clotted cream … Likewise, math is about numbers, but it’s about many other things as well.”
Through her unconventional methods, Dr. Eugenia Cheng hopes to pierce through the misconception of mathematics being only about numbers and formulas.
“Mathematics is a place where progress begins,” she stated, “a dream world where progress can begin.”