Infinite Potential

Guest Post by Justin Walters

A few days ago on a lazy Sunday, I sat down at our kitchen table with my eight-year-old daughter, Claire, to eat a snack. We engaged in our usual chit-chat as I tried my best to appreciate this little bit of time we had alone together, time that seems to grow ever more scarce as she grows older. Suddenly, out of the blue, she asked me a strange question.

Justin & Claire Walters

Justin & Claire Walters

“Daddy, is infinity real?”

Whoa. I sat for a few seconds to gather my thoughts on how exactly to answer that, while at the same time wondering what in the world led to her asking the question in the first place. What was the context here? Is she talking about time, or numbers, or an infinite number of physical objects? Is infinity real? Are any of us real? Thankfully I pulled my reeling mind back in before it shut down completely and managed some semblance of an answer.

“Well, yes and no,” I said. “The concept of Infinity is very real, but as an actual object or number, no, Infinity isn’t real.” She scrunched her face up in that way that says, I have no idea what you are talking about, you crazy old man. I’ve gotten that face more times over the years than I’d care to admit. Then, I had an idea.

“Okay, stand up and step one tile away from the carpet.” She rolled her eyes, but we had nothing else to do, and so she obliged. “Now, take a small step that will get you to halfway across the tile.” Again, she grudgingly took half a step. “How close are you to the carpet?”

“I’m halfway there,” she answered.

“Good. Now, take another smaller step that’ll get you halfway to the carpet again.”

She did so, and without waiting for me to ask, she said, “Now I’m three-fourths of the way there.”

“Do it again.” She took another tiny step.

“Now I’m…” She looked up as she crunched the numbers in her head. “Seven-Eights?”

“Very good!” She’d obviously been working on her fractions. “Now, I could have you keep taking tiny little steps, but let’s just think it the rest of the way through. If you kept cutting the distance in half every time you took a step, how many steps would it take you to reach the carpet?”

Claire opened her mouth to answer, then caught herself at the last second. Yes, I thought, you’ve got it now. Think it through.

Finally, she answered, “I don’t think I would ever reach the carpet, would I? I’d keep taking little tiny steps forever.”

“Or in other words, you would take an infinite number of steps. Of course, you can never actually take that many steps because it would go on forever. It isn’t a real number of steps you can take. In the same way, infinity isn’t real, but the concept or the idea of it can be useful anyway, just like how we’re using it right now.”

She scrunched her face up again. “But if I never reach the carpet, then what’s the point?”

“The point is this: even though you never actually reach the carpet, you become infinitely close to the carpet. Though you have to take an infinite number of steps, the total distance that you would end up traveling is not infinite. In reality, you end up traveling a distance of just a little less than one tile. Infinitely close to one tile. In other words, one tile is the absolute limit of how far you can travel.”

Something about this clicked with her, and I was able to go on and explain the concept of Limits and how they are a fundamental building block for when she eventually begins to learn Calculus. Though she doesn’t yet have the mathematical foundation to understand everything that I was telling her, I was amazed at how much she retained. Enough so that she was able to explain the concept of limits to my wife the following day.

Did I mention that Claire is eight? And that despite only technically just finishing second grade, she is completing 4th and 5th year math subjects?

Now, believe it or not, the purpose of this story is not to brag on my daughter for being so smart. (Okay, maybe there’s a little of that too, but I promise I’m going somewhere with this!) The point is that Claire hates math. She groans to herself each time it is brought up, and absolutely loses all motivation when she gets to this subject in school every day. But how can this be? How can someone who is obviously so good at something despise it so?

I think the answer is that Claire doesn’t actually hate math at all. She only thinks she does.

Before I explain, let’s completely change gears for a moment and discuss some statistics around women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) fields. All of these come from a 2011 study done by the United States Department of Commerce:

  • Despite filling half the jobs in the US workforce, women only make up 25% of STEM jobs.

  • This has not changed for the last decade, despite an increase of women in the overall workforce.

  • As of 2009, there were 6.7 Million men in the workforce with STEM degrees, as compared to 2.5 Million women – nearly a 3:1 ratio.

  • Of those women that do earn STEM degrees, only 18% of them specifically choose an Engineering degree, as opposed to 48% of men.

  • Only 26% of women who earn a STEM degree actually work in a STEM occupation. For comparison, that same metric for men is around 40%.

It’s a fascinating (if not depressing) study, and I encourage you to go read all the details if you get an opportunity. Unfortunately, the truth is likely that I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know. In fact, there’s a good chance that if you’re reading this, you are already more than aware of these disheartening statistics and many others.

The reason then that I reiterate them is because when I look at these numbers, I see the face of my daughter in ten years when she enters college. If most of this hadn’t changed in the previous decade before the study, what makes me think they will change in the next one? What is the underlying cause here?

That’s a question that countless dedicated men and women have devoted their time and effort to answering, people who are much smarter and more capable than I ever will be. Therefore, for me to even try and come up with an all encompassing answer here would be utter folly. I’ll leave that to the experts. However, what I can offer is a small piece of the puzzle based on my own observations and experience.

There is a growing phenomenon in our society today of casual misogyny.

(Wait, hold up a second guys, don’t pack up and leave just because I mentioned the dreaded “M”-word! Bear with me for a few minutes and let’s just see what happens. I promise a full refund by the end of this post if you don’t get your money’s worth.)

Even as we have advanced past the point of actively oppressing women, we’ve also found ways to work into our culture this acceptance that there are all these ways women are inherently inferior to men. When a boy falls and gets hurt, his friends – or maybe even his own father – tells him not to cry like a girl. When a neat science documentary comes on television, the host and experts seem to be overwhelmingly male. Any time a woman walks into a room, the very first thing she is judged on, before she ever even opens her mouth, is her appearance.

I know this because I’ve seen it, and still see it every day. I work as an engineer in the energy sector, and I can attest to the fact that our field is still overwhelmingly male dominated. And though progress has been made, this casual misogyny is unavoidable. When a man makes a mistake, it was an oversight, where a woman in the same situation was being an airhead or a dumb blonde or some equally idiotic misnomer. When a man speaks his mind he’s being assertive, but when a woman does it, she’s called a bitch. When called out on it, these same men will raise their palms and swear up and down that they have nothing against women, but the truth lies in their actions.

(Of course, I’d be remiss if I didn’t include a disclaimer here: Not all of the men I work with have this attitude. I work with plenty of great people who do everything they possibly can to be fair and treat everyone equally. But, as the saying goes, it only takes a few bad apples to spoil the bunch.)

I can even look back and pick out times where I’ve participated in this myself. Maybe it was something small, like a throwaway joke about how the WNBA isn’t real basketball, or how some “typical woman driver” cut me off in traffic. Of course, I know both of these are fallacies, but they come out anyway because that’s also the culture in which I was raised. Men are simply better, even if we won’t admit to it outright. That’s what all of us are taught from a very young age. Including our little girls.

And now my own daughter is growing up, and the older she gets, the more I understand how this problem affects her. Everywhere she looks, she sees that Scientists and Engineers almost always seem to be men. All of her friends see the same thing, and they intuitively learn that math is something boys are naturally good at and that girls should worry more about other things. Girls have these great role models on television of women portraying doctors and artists and chefs, but how often do they see women portrayed as an engineer, or a programmer, or a mathematician?.

That’s a rhetorical question, by the way. We all know the answer.

Now, that brings us full circle to the original issue. Does Claire really hate math? Of course not. People don’t hate talents with which they are naturally gifted. It’s part of our biological makeup to enjoy doing the things we are good at. But when everything you know tells you that you should not be good at a particular skill, your actual ability ceases to matter. Claire has a flawed understanding that she shouldn’t be good at math, and therefore, she has decided that she hates it.

There’s good news, though! The first step to solving a problem is understanding that the problem exists. Now that we understand at least part of the problem, we can all work to correct it. When we see someone displaying the casual misogyny we all know too well, let’s call it out for what it is. Let’s stop being reactive to girls not liking math and science, and instead be proactive in showing them how awesome these fields truly are.

There is a whole generation of little girls out there who need their Daddies to tell them not only that they’re beautiful, but also how amazing their minds can be when they are given a chance. So when you’re sitting alone with your daughter on a Sunday afternoon, don’t pass up an opportunity to teach her something new. She may roll her eyes at first, but you’ll be amazed at what she can learn when you give her a chance to unleash her potential.

Justin Walters

Justin Walters

About Justin Walters

Justin Paul Walters lives near Houston, TX. He works professionally as an Electrical Engineer in the energy sector by day, and enjoys writing as a hobby whenever he can fit it in. You can read more of his work by visiting his website at justinpaulwalters.com, or you can follow him on Twitter @justinwalters.

About Our First Guest Host

Meagan here, and I am super excited to have Justin Walters as my first guest blogger on Engineering Equity in Education. I’ve known Justin since I was about 6 or 7 years old, I think. Our families were good friends growing up, and I even went to prom with him one year. I haven’t seen Justin in ages, but we keep up like lots of old friends on Facebook.  I posted a video a few weeks ago that empowers young women, and Justin responded with a very thoughtful post that I believed was worthy of not being lost in a Facebook thread that would quickly fade away.  Justin took time to write a very thoughtful contribution to this page, and I hope his words and encouragement resonate with you! Thank you, Justin!

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