PBS in the Classroom

Why Being Held Back Was the Push Forward I Needed

February 09, 2017

It was fall of the year 2000. No computers had destroyed Earth, and I had just taken the most important test of my life: a 6th grade math placement test. The exam would determine which math class my tiny private school would let me skip to —or repeat, but that was unlikely. I was a huge math geek. When we finally got the results, I was shocked and excited but also a little frightened; I had tested into 9th grade algebra. This leap forward in the math curriculum was a turning point that would affect my career for years to come, almost as much as the two years prior – the two years when I was held back.

To put my little history in context, I currently run a YouTube channel about physics with PBS Digital Studios. I get to nerd-out about science on the internet, all the time! What could be better? But there’s never an interview about my degree or my job that doesn’t include a question along the lines of, “How did YOU get here?” Or more frankly: “Why didn’t you get scared away from physics?” They mention the lack of women in Science, Technology, Engineering, Math (STEM). They mention the percentage of undergraduate degrees awarded in physics and engineering – a dismal number that hovers somewhere around 20%.

Testing into algebra was the first time I’d ever experienced institutional support for my innate interest in math. Although to give credit where credit is due, my mom taught me 4th grade math in 3rd grade when I was homeschooled with my older sister. She thought it would be easier to teach us the same math curriculum, and I had no trouble keeping up! I distinctly remember devising a trick for multiplying by 5s that year. (Let me share my trick). Take 5 x 12. Cut the 12 in half, you get 6, then tag on a zero! 5 x 12 = 60. I digress.

When I returned to regular school, it was not equipped to handle multiple levels of proficiency, and I repeated 4th grade math. In 5th grade, the same. But the 6th grade math placement ignited a line of support. First, the administration allowed me to jump ahead in math. Then, physics and astronomy teachers in high school, noting my strong interest, went above and beyond encouraging me to pursue physics. These inspirational individuals gave me the confidence to ultimately study physics at MIT. But the unexpected hero of this story, and perhaps the reason I would pursue something as crazy as a career on YouTube, was the time I was held back.

During those two years, I started reading chapter books; I was among the last of my peers to do so. I tried arts and crafts and theater. I was like the Hermione of U.S. History and the encyclopedia of states and capitals because, frankly, I was bored in math. But I had already liked math. I was already good at it. Those two years allowed me to discover other subjects, to become — dare I say it — well-rounded. Plus, I studied my heart out for that math placement test, because there’s no way I was going to take 6th grade math in 6th grade.

So first, kudos to those adults who recognized something in me, and encouraged and cultivated my strengths. But I’m also grateful for the time I spent away from math, working with teachers who introduced me to my weaknesses and helped me strengthen them. Plus without those two years, I may have never found the impulse to push myself. 

STEM careers continue to be among the fastest growing career paths. Getting kids interested early is key. PBS LearningMedia has many resources to help encourage students to pursue interesting careers in science, technology, engineering, and math. Some of our favorite Physics Girl videos: 

Dianna Cowern is the creator of Physics Girl. Driving tractors on a farm in Hawaii where she grew up somehow led to science and engineering pursuits. Nicknamed “happy pants” in college, Dianna researched dark matter with Prof. Jocelyn Monroe as an undergraduate at MIT, and low-metallicity stars with Prof. Anna Frebel as a post-baccalaureate research fellow at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, before bringing her happy intern pants to GE where she worked as a Software Engineer designing mobile apps. Eventually, she started exercising the nerdy side of her brain on YouTube as Physics Girl before (and while) heading over to UCSD as a science outreach coordinator. She loves to surf, SCUBA dive and play the ukulele.

Dianna Cowern

Dianna Cowern Physics Girl http://physicsgirl.org/ Twitter: thephysicsgirl