Math is innate?

I’m pleased to present yet another sterling scientist who’s deeply passionate about the growth mindset in mathematics, or in any other challenging endeavour where brainpower is key. Meet Margot Gerritsen, a professor in the Department of Energy Resources Engineering at Stanford. After watching her presentation on fluid flow I can confidently say she’s a force to be reckoned with. Without further ado.

Innate ability in math? I don’t think so!

“In each math or engineering course I teach, be it at the freshmen or advanced graduate level,  I hear students lament they lack the innate ability to do math at the required level. “I’m just not that good at math”, or “I was OK at lower level math, but I do not have the ability to perform well at this higher level”.

I’ve never believed that mathematics was something you either could or could not do. I’d say that it is a myth that mathematical ability is genetically determined, and a really rotten one at that as it has caused many perfectly capable students to shy away from mathematics at their first weak performances.

Google “mathematics innate ability” and you can find references to a long list of papers on this topic. In the last years, sufficient evidence has been gathered that mathematics is something you can learn to be good at: practice makes the mathematician.

I see this also in my classes. For the students that struggle, I often offer bootcamps: intense periods in which the students practice mathematical concepts every day, consistently. Nearly all students who participate in bootcamps improve, sometimes significantly.

I am not claiming that talent does not come into the picture. For some, mathematics will come easier, or at least certain types of mathematics will come easier. But I do strongly believe that everyone can be pretty good, if they persist, helped by good instructors.

For all of you who doubt your ability, read about the growth mindset (e.g. Carol Dweck’s book “Mindset”), and do not give up. Mathematics is wonderful, powerful and beautiful, and you can all come to see that.”

–Margot Gerritsen:

In case you’re interested in her aforementioned presentation on fluid flow; be aware that you can understand it too! Enjoy.



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