Lessons in Life and Calculus

(Guest Post from the Spouse)

I was always good at math…well, in high school. As you know from my previous guest blogs (ajsdad.blog, June 17, 2020, and March 5, 2021), I like puzzles of all kinds, and math is a particularly elegant aspect of the genre. Puzzles are intellectually satisfying because when you have the right answer, when you fit the right piece, when the down word fits comfortably with the across word, you KNOW it’s correct. There’s a shot of dopamine that gives you a small moment of satisfaction. In high school I was particularly fond of and adept at trigonometry.

So imagine my chagrin when I got to college and Calculus overwhelmed me. I must have passed it, but I don’t see how I did. As an adult, I might have been able to muddle through a quadratic equation, but couldn’t find a derivative if my life depended on it.

Things got even worse as my career in neuroscience proceeded. I became aware of “computational neuroscience” sometime in the early aughts of the 21st century. One of my colleagues was a founder of the field. I was pleased to congratulate him on his many well-received publications, but could not understand a single concept that was in them. At one point I said to him, “Maybe I should take a first-year course in Calculus.” “Why?” he countered. “It’s so easy.” (!!!).

Twice. Twice! I ordered Calculus courses from The Teaching Company. To get an idea of the eras of these efforts, one course is on VCR tapes, the other on CDs. I would start a lecture, realize I didn’t know what a radian was and abandon the effort.

Time passed. Retirement came. And I looked around for things to make myself useful. I can read, so I thought maybe I could teach young people to read. That’s an essay for another day. But I also decided that I could probably manage to tutor 6th or 7th graders in math, so I connected with a volunteer tutor group and found myself tutoring a young man in beginning algebra.

Having never TAUGHT math, I sought advice on what to teach and what order to teach it in. That’s how I discovered Khan Academy. This wonderful — free! — online service, founded by Salman Khan, is a treasure trove of 6500 teaching videos in math, science, reading, statistics, economics, history and I don’t know what all. It’s an extraordinary resource for teachers and students alike. Sal seems to have prepared the bulk of the math videos, and he is indeed a gifted teacher. Each video is no more than 10-12 minutes long — usually shorter — and covers a single concept. After 3-4 videos, there is a short quiz to check a student’s progress.  At the end of each unit there’s a slightly longer test to check progress. If one answers all questions correctly, confetti is thrown and trumpets sound. But even if the performance is less than perfect, there are encouraging words (“You’ve made progress” or “Keep practicing”). You can take the quizzes as many times as you need to (they change with each attempt).

So, I thought, I’ll have Sal teach me Calculus.

I started with Pre-calculus, a review of algebra and trigonometry concepts. Sal actually taught me what a radian was so that was exceedingly helpful. After 3-4 months of prep, I felt I was ready for THE CALCULUS. I’m 2-3 months in now and can actually perform derivatives on all types of mathematical situations, she says proudly. Would I say “Easy”? Not so much, but certainly not insurmountable. I have started reviewing the CDs from The Teaching Company. I can understand them now!

Any number of people ask me why in heaven’s name am I taking Calculus? Good question.  A) It’s a great puzzle, but B) I want ultimately to learn what Calculus is good for besides determining velocity and acceleration. So I’m eager to move into the “applications” part of the course which is coming up soon. And, of course, I haven’t even begun to study integral calculus. I haven’t the first clue of what that’s good for. I’ll let you know next semester. Stay tuned.