Why I Didn’t Study STEM

I would have been the ideal STEM candidate.

As a young kid, I was fascinated with numbers and patterns. My favorite show, long after I should have outgrown it, was Mathnet. In elementary and middle school, I swept up ribbons at the regional Math Contests, and in high school, I was a Mathlete — for one year.

What happened after that year, of course, changed everything.

My rural school, which boasted 500 students from grades K-12 and fit them all into one building, was great at teaching arithmetic, geometry, algebra, and anything that you could do with pen and paper. Our science classes were fantastic at instructing us in the parts of a cell, the phylums and species, and anything that, again, could be solved with pen and paper.

Once the TI-89 calculator got involved, or the microscope, or any instrument more sophisticated than a mechanical pencil, everything fell apart. We just didn’t have the resources.

That meant that within a year I went from being a regional Mathlete to being hopelessly behind. From there, everything compounded. I didn’t have any interest in studying math, science, technology, or engineering in college because I had no applicable background in any of those areas. (We did have a computer lab, but used it to teach typing.)

I like to sum up my high school math education in a single anecdote: “I took a calculus class. The teacher was also the girls’ basketball coach. He said we could skip lessons and homework, and spend our class period playing cards and listening to the radio, every time the girls won a game. That year, they went to State.”

In college, I slid my way out of the math gen-ed requirement by signing up for an honors course in linguistics. After my first class session, I wished I had all of college to do over again, so I could study linguistics and words and numbers and patterns, and jump back into that world that was once so familiar.

But I had already moved on.