Awkward at Math & Science


2012-09-23

Historically I am more than extra extracurricular, I joined Science Olympiad in Junior High in search of friends and (luckily, I might add) some of those friends helped me temporarily “find God”, showed me a good time, and saved me from committing suicide at such a young age. Though these science loving youngsters made me ashamed to be gay, they were also entertained by and often encouraged what may have been early manic episodes. I’m hesitant to say whether their support for my then-undiagnosed bipolar disorder was a good or bad thing, but I’d like to point out that without them (and so many other positive and negative influences) I wouldn’t be the awkward (thankfully alive) person I am today.

Science Olympiad was a trip, literally. In my time as a teenage scientist I would occasionally get trained by real scientists during visits or in their corporate labs, went to other schools for academic competitions, and went to an area competition at a local community college. It had never occurred to me that people could actually enjoy academic activities outside of the K-12 system. Yes, science was fun but the “I’ve never seen an adult do calculus in the real world” observation had been burning in my head up until that point. But here were adults using science and math, not just because they needed good grades... but because they legitimately loved figuring things out, improving their understanding, and applying those things for corporate gain. While that realization was pretty awesome, I had never been to a college campus in session before and during the area competition I saw college students working to become these things themselves. I wanted to have something that drove me the way it appeared to be driving them.

Without backpedaling too much, I should probably explain that I was observably terrible at science. My scientific ability was pithy at best. Though I loved reading about science and figuring out how to solve problems on my own, once I knew enough about a certain topic I had a sudden desire to feign ignorance and move on to another subject. But I persevered through teenage scientific malaise and found some science activities that were a perfect fit: team-building exercises in building complex models & scientific research. I won’t bore you with my team-building interactions, because they were fraught with drama-related headaches. But my foray in scientific research brings me to my first awkward memory.

Before that memory, a bit of my library filled background for context. My grandfather loved books, there were several bookshelves at my grandparents house and he claimed to have read most of their contents. Beyond that, he made irregular trips to the library and would return with a filing crate filled with a veritable what’s new in nonfiction books. He would fall asleep to PBS’s Nova while I watched as he skimmed them for interesting facts. I would then change the channel to Sesame Street.

In grade school, I had trouble making friends who were committed to conversation during recess. So, imagine my delight when I found out the school librarian was “hiring” librarian helpers for shifts during recess. Let’s just say, I made plenty of overtime and the soda/popcorn perks could have fed a small family. Working in that library, I dreamt of writing my own encyclopedia (pre Jimmy Wales ruining that dream) and wanted to end the terrible practice of library reference holdings. I can’t count the number of times I would fancy the latest issue of Popular Science or an illustrated guide to amphibious creatures ONLY TO FIND OUT that they weren’t currently available for checkout. I’d have to come in after school, but for the time-being I’d probably better get back to work.

Back to my first awkward memory, since I was known to be a bit hyper (possibly to the point of manic) I was often given magazines and snacks in an attempt to calm me during the competition trips. On the occasion of the community college tournament, I was handed a bag of cookies and the science teacher’s personal copy of National Geographic. I read the magazine cover to cover during the bus ride while eating cookies, it was AWESOME. However, it had an unintended consequence on my participation in the day’s competition.

When I arrived at a college computer lab, they had already booted up the desktops, connected the dialup modems, and loaded Netscape. The competition involved a page of random, recently discovered science questions that we’d have an hour to find corresponding facts for on these machines. At the time, Google was barely a thing and search engines were more difficult to navigate. This was a task for nerdy students who liked using difficult interfaces to find things that teenagers generally weren’t looking for, I was a perfect fit. I finished the last cookie in my bag, put down the National Geographic, grabbed my pencil and started my timed event.

As any good test taker, I read through all of the questions completely while marking level of assumed difficultly. When I reached the end, I felt an odd sense of déjà vu, a strange nagging sensation that I could already answer most of the given questions. That’s weird, I thought, I’m not that good at science but I seem to know these. How do I already know these answers? I glanced at the computer then back at the sheet. Then looked longingly at the empty bag of cookies on-top of the recently finished magazine. Suddenly, I knew that all of the questions were pulled from that single issue of National Geographic. Clearly, the college student proctoring the event didn’t know that and had let me bring it in for light reading if I finished early. But here I was, with the answers and no need to surf the net. I turned bright red and fled the room.

I didn’t place at the tournament and never explained why, my science teacher just assumed I was distracted by disney.com, as was known to happen during test runs. Though really happenstance, I didn’t see the situation as serendipitous but instead created an internal dialogue that interpreted the situation as an example of how my attempt at competitive science depended on luck rather than skill. Though I didn’t place, the situation felt a lot like cheating and I didn’t want to be a cheater.

Thankfully, rather than admit I wasn’t that great at science, I switched to math. A subject I had a on-again-off-again interest in. Rather than listen to lessons and practice on worksheets, my favorite way to consume math was coming up with my own implementation using unconventional (read: more difficult, not practical) methods of problem solving. I’d try to interpret the character motives for word problems before looking for a solution. Rather than listen to the teacher lecture, I’d skim the textbook’s step-by-step guide and then write a simplistic “app” on my graphing calculator that would allow me to forget the steps and simply input numbers to reach a solution. Teachers were often puzzled by this, but they also frequently had me tutor students on how to use graphing calculators. It didn’t come as a surprise when I received an invitation to attend a youth oriented focus group at (I'll call it) Roulette Tackard (they had a large complex in town). One of my math teachers referred me for the opportunity, and I was excited to meet other math students from the surrounding schools and snack on pizza while discussing calculators.

While the event was the dream social event I had been waiting for, I have a feeling that Roulette Tackard found my input less than desirable. The room was filled with tables covered in pizza, tons of snacks and soda, and calculators to test and play with. Adult organizers had us explain what we liked about our current calculator (as an eighth grader, I was probably one of the youngest and apparently one of the few who had a graphing calculator). They wanted to know if the color of the calculator made a difference. If styled plates would make them more fun.

I wanted to know if a graphing calculator (then I used a TI, but later switched to an HP) could do a better job at visualizing the steps it used to solve an equation. At that point, I was better at inputing equations for solutions than understanding the mechanics of actually solving the problem. They weren’t there to talk functions, they just wanted to gauge how students felt about their calculators and their dismissal of my interest in math lost my focus. I fell quiet while older students discussed possible color or style choices. Luckily, in the years since, I never saw any of the designs implemented but it made me concerned I was too interested in the computation rather than the aesthetic of my calculator. And ever since, my calculator choices are partially weighted on how futuristic they make me feel.

I’ve occasionally wondered what my life would be like without Science Olympiad. Hint: I’d be dead. Asked myself if math and science would have been easier or more interesting if I’d been medicated. Hint: probably. Questioned the role of nerd culture on my teenage gay shame. Hint: caused a lot of it. But I’ve taken solace in the fact that I’m nervous about unintended advantage and look like I just walked out of a lunar pod with my calculator. There is something comforting in that.