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STEM EDUCATION 2. Not Everyone Is Lucky Enough to be a Nerd

How do you identify extroverted nerds? When you are talking to them, they look at YOUR shoes
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Last time, I talked about pursuing nerd quality rather than quantity. But how do we know a nerd when we see one?

Not everyone is lucky enough to be a nerd. I am a nerd. Nerds love things that don’t love back.1 I love math, science, and engineering. If you’ve met me, you would probably not see me as socially awkward. In truth, I have worked hard on that character flaw. I used to feel uncomfortable around people I didn’t know.

After many years, though, I’ve matured. I am now used to being uncomfortable around people I don’t know. How do you identify extroverted nerds? When you are talking to them, they look at your shoes.

A high school pre-calculus class.

A high school pre-calculus class. My colleague Dr. Charles Baylis,
who organized this visit, is standing in the back.

By the way, please don’t call me a geek. I’m a nerd. A geek is a circus performer that bites the heads off of live chickens. There’s a big difference between a nerd and a geek: I don’t do that.

I love clever mathematics, brilliantly written algorithms, mind-blowing science, and the latest gadgets. And I get peeved if one of the things I love is insulted. Here’s an example: When some people fail to add or subtract numbers correctly, they dismiss their stupidity with the statement “I’m just not good at math.” I usually manage to suppress saying something curt like “Don’t brag about the extent of your ignorance. Math? You’re not even good with arithmetic!” Math? Most non-nerds wouldn’t know even elementary math if they were hit on the head with a bag of smartphones.

I am also a champion of nerd parity in higher education. Those in other fields often dismiss math with remarks like “I’m a major in English Literature. Why should I have to take calculus in college?” They have a point. But then why do STEM majors in college need to study Shakespearean sonnets? English literature majors don’t use higher math and nerds don’t use Shakespearean sonnets in their work––at least not directly. If I am made to confess that college courses in Shakespearean sonnets will make me a better person, then English literature majors had better confess that calculus makes them better people.

Nerds can be educated into what we will call STEM nerd professionals. Unlike graduates in many majors, applied STEM nerd professionals like engineers are employable as soon as they get their undergraduate degrees. This is also true of nurses and teachers, but applied STEM pros usually get paid more.

I knew from a young age that I was a nerd. I could entertain myself for days with a pencil and an endless supply of blank paper. I spent hours in junior high school fiddling with elementary number theory, like figuring out that 7,281,935,064 was divisible by 2, 3, 4,6, 9, 12 and 18 without doing any division. Most nerds know the trick.2

I have occasionally spoken at high schools about STEM careers. I asked the students whether or not they like math. Almost everyone knows early on, one way or the other. Sometimes it’s hard getting high school nerds to come out of the closet. Non-nerds are jealous and poke fun, and even bully nerds. So I encourage the nerds to acknowledge their talents. Nerdiness is a gift that needs to be celebrated! I tell them that applied STEM majors, especially computer scientists and engineers, make more money immediately after their undergraduate degrees than almost any other college major.

When I quote typical annual starting salaries to high school students, I am often met by blank stares. But when I translate this to hourly income, I suddenly get their attention. Properly nurtured nerds will be driving Mercedes while their bullies will end up driving used pick-ups.

Notice my emphasis on enjoying high school math rather than science. There is a reason: No matter what applied STEM discipline is chosen, math is needed. In my experience, talent in math correlates well with success in almost any STEM field. But high school science rarely gets deep into the mathematics of science. And that is where science gets to be fun.

Advocates for the development of STEM education need to recognize not everyone is a nerd. Let’s call such people “contra-nerds.” When my daughter Marilee was getting her business degree at Baylor, a course in calculus was required. So we would sit for hours at a local Jack-in-the-Box drinking Diet Dr Pepper and studying elementary calculus.* The need to sit in a fast food restaurant for hours helped Marilee to focus on the task at hand without distraction. She is a contra-nerd; she doesn’t have a nerd bone in her body. I suspect that, given a choice, she would choose a deep paper cut over a course in calculus. Lucky for her, I was there to lead her through the dark and foreboding valley of differential and integral calculus.

Albert Einstein is believed to have said one should make things as simple as possible but not simpler. With that as my goal, I took great pains to explain the math to Marilee in as simple terms as possible. I once gave her the clearest and most meticulous explanation possible of the chain rule for derivatives in calculus. Halfway through, she interrupted in desperation.“Wait.” She paused. “Wait a minute.” After a short period of deep, silent thinking, she looked at me eye-to-eye with her face curled into confusion: “What?”

Marlee is a contra-nerd and career-wise she belongs far from the STEM nerd professions. Those developing STEM curricula, take heed. Not all students are nerds. Contra-nerds will not do well in STEM programs and should not be injected into them. Marilee graduated from college with a business degree and has become highly successful in real estate. Since taking her final course in math with my help, she has never again needed to use anything she learned in calculus.

We might be all be created equal, but our gifts are not the same.3 A round peg who primarily loves foreign languages should not be forced into a square nerd hole.

Note: I live in Waco, Texas, the home of Dr Pepper and the Dr Pepper Museum. Waco natives know that there is no period after Dr in Dr Pepper.


1 Just so my family and loved ones won’t misinterpret this statement, I feel compelled to state that I also love things that do love back. And I have the best wife and the most loving family in the world!

2 Here’s the trick: All even numbers are divisible by 2. If the last two digits of a number are divisible by 4, the number is divisible by 4. And 7+2+8+1+9+3+5+0+6+4 = 45 and 4+5=9. Any time digits add to 9 like this, the number is divisible by 9 and thus by 3. If divisible by both 2 and 3, a number is divisible by 6. If divisible by both2 and 9, a number is divisible by 18.

3 1 Corinthians 12:8–10

Robert J. Marks is the Director of the Walter Bradley Center for Natural and Artificial Intelligence and holds the position of Distinguished Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Baylor University.

See also: 1. Pursuing Nerd Quality Over Nerd Quantity Robert J. Marks: Reducing math and science to practice is what engineers do. Scientists didn’t put a man on the moon. Engineers did.