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MIT student blogger Laura N. '09

Psets from hell by Laura N. '09

Sometimes learning can be painful

thekeri said:
And to Laura: update? Please? I’m suffering over Spring Break here?
I know, I have failed you all. Please accept my sincerest apologies. =( So here it is, a long overdue update about everyone’s favorite subject- homework!

As I’ve mentioned before, this semester I’m taking both 18.02 (Multivariable Calculus) and 18.03 (Differential Equations). While technically you don’t need any knowledge of 18.02 to understand 18.03- well, taking two math classes at once isn’t so easy. I don’t know how math majors do it.

***Story time!!!***

Once upon a time, I was really good at math. I was practically a math prodigy back in the day. Like back in preschool and kindergarden, I was adding and subtracting way before all the other kids. No, seriously- I remember one time my mom got really mad at me because my kindergarden teacher wanted to talk to her, and she assumed it meant I wasn’t sharing my Play-Doh. But it turns out that she just wanted to talk to my mom about putting me in a gifted program because of my awesome addition skills. (Kindergarden, remember?)

As I got older, I still loved math, and so did my dad. He works in construction, and spends most of his time framing houses. He used to come home from work and give me actual problems he faced that day to test my geometry skills. Sometimes he would teach me geometry tricks, and sometimes I would actually help him figure out how long he needed to cut a certain piece of lumber. One of my favorite elementary school teachers, Mrs. Condon, loved math too. I remember going to this “Family Math Night” event she held- my parents and I tried to solve tricky math problems. I think I even volunteered to help out the following year. (You know how it is, when you’re in fifth grade you think you own the elementary school.)

Then somehow, my love for math kind of changed. Not into hatred exactly, but maybe apprehension. I guess it had something to do with math teachers and classes, neither of which are actually related to math itself. Or maybe it was because there were more letters and less numbers.

I’m not sure exactly what happened, but the bottom line is that now math kind of freaks me out a little bit. Which is sad, because I know I still enjoy it somewhere deep down. The best way to describe to you the way I feel about math now is through my AP classes: Senior year I took AP Physics C (calc-based) and AP Calc AB. This might sound like a good idea, but its not. Not knowing the calc ahead of time was a pretty big deal. The first day of calc was spent reveiwing the slope of a line. (Did you ever notice how every math class ever starts out with a review of this concept? I personally feel like it’s getting kinda old. OK- rise over run. delta y / delta x. Understood. Let’s move on please.) The first day of physics was spent reveiwing derivatives. You might think it’s kind of hard to review things you’ve never even heard of before, and you’d be right. We were fully engrossed in Electricity and Magnetism before my calc teacher ever used the integral symbol. Clearly, this was not ideal. My study/support group (all 6 of the girls in the 20 person class, none of us had the proper math background…another story for another day) learned the math as we went along. I got straight A’s, double 5’s on the AP (Physics C is actually two tests: Mechanics and E&M), tested out of 8.01, and am having no problems understanding a thing in 8.02. On the other hand, I did not-so-well in calc and got a 3 on the AP Calc AB test. So basically, I blundered my way through double integrals in physics (which, by the way, I didn’t receive official intstruction on until about 3 weeks ago) to get straight A’s, but despised every minute of AP Calc.

Give me a math problem disguised in the real world, and I’ll happily spend hours getting it wrong as I work my way towards the answer, working out how to compute integrals on my own or creating new methods of computation as I go. Ask me to do math for math’s sake, or to do an MIT Mathematics pset, and that’s when all hell breaks loose.

Like the first week of this semester, for example. Or hey, the week after that, too. You know, right on up until now, and next week, and all the weeks after that. I remember being rather miserable during the first week this semester. It was 2 straight days of too much math, and not enough sleep. I knew this because when describing my week to a friend I said, “The ratio of hours I spent doing math to hours I spent sleeping is far too high.” Now that we’re nearing the end of the term, I guess the shock of the sheer amount of time I spend on math has worn off, at least.

Math psets are hard, and they are long. They take a lot of knowledge, and a lot of skill, and a lot of time, and a certain amount of mental dexterity. And if you’re like me, they require a lot of patience and determination. Especially when you have 2 a week.

As I said, technically no knowledge of 18.02 is required for 18.03. But at the same time, it’s easy to feel way less prepared. Just the fact that most people in the class have already learned multivariable calc (even if they won’t use it) is a little intimidating. Like they’re all just plain better at math than me. I kind of feel like the dumb one who’s in over her head.

For example, my 18.03 TA…seems a little concerned about me. After he hands out that day’s practice problem, he checks in on me every few minutes, making noises of surprise when I actually write down anything relevant on the page. This, as you can imagine, is a little upsetting.

Here is what one of our 18.03 psets looked like: See, when it says, “Solve x’ + 2x = cos(2t) by replacing it with a complex valued equation, solving that, and then extracting the real part,” or “Find the real and imaginary part, and the modulus and argument of e1+(π/3)i,” or “Write down the constant coefficient homogeneous linear differential equation with characteristic polynomial p(s)= s3 – s,” well, it’s not the same thing as the time my kindergarden teacher handed out 100 snacks on the 100th day of school (10 Skittles and 10 M&Ms and 10 pretzels…) and asked me, “If you eat all of your M&Ms and 3 of your Skittles, how many snacks do you have left?”

Here’s the point I’m getting towards: this story doesn’t end with “and then I suddenly magically understood all of the mathematical mysteries of the universe, aced both classes, and decided to major in Course 18.” This story ends (well, it hasn’t really ended yet, but for now) with:

Math is hard. I’m still sad that I’ve lost my old love for it, and really need to study for my 18.02 exam on Thursday because I’m honestly not satisfied with my grade in the class.

Sometimes I think I got into MIT because I took a lot of leaps in high school. But that doesn’t mean I’m not afraid to take risks. Sometimes those leaps I took were pretty awesome. And sometimes I landed flat on my face. But they were all at least a little bit scary.

Confusingly profound statement of the day: Success is all about failure. You’ll take risks, and it’ll be scary, and sometimes you’ll fail. Or even (gasp) be mediocre. And that’s ok. No really. It is. Promise.

Responses to Comments:
Mal wrote:
Is the Lego Lab open to the general public? Are there other things to do on campus that are open to kids? Thanks.
Hmm. Well, I’m almost sure there’s a tour of the Media Lab (which is the larger lab which includes the Lego Lab) that’s supposed to be really awesome, but I’m not sure how one would be able to take such a tour. Maybe one of the other bloggers knows? Other than that, I can’t think of much open to kids specifically. If you’re visiting campus, stop by the Admissions Reception Center in building 10 (that’s the one with the big dome); they can give you a pamphlet with suggestions of fun things to see and do on campus. Oh, and now that I think about it, the MIT museum, located on Mass Ave, is one of the coolest places ever (no seriously, I love that place), and very kid-friendly. Admission is pretty cheap too- only $2 for kids, $5 for adults, and free for MIT ID card holders.

Now here’s the great thing about being a blogger.
Awww. Laura, I less than 3 you!
Posted by: The Girl Sitting Across the Room From You and Is “Stalking” You
I have no idea who this is. April denies it. Maybe Adelaide? I don’t know….I just…what the hell?

19 responses to “Psets from hell”

  1. Evan B. says:

    It’s kind of interesting, really. I hated arithmetic, but I loved calculus.

    Also – you guys used double integrals in your physics class? Our teacher really wanted to (she was sort of a math nerd at heart) but resisted for our own sake.

    And yes, I get ticked at being told how to find the slope of a line too.

    One more thing…I tried to find a website for 18.02, and I can’t. Is there any chance you could send me one of the psets for 18.02? I want to see how it compares to the mutlivar class I’m auditing this year.

    Many thanks, and good luck with those psets.

  2. Laura says:

    Oops! The link I gave to the 18.02 website was broken, but I just fixed it. You can poke around there for psets from the current semester.

  3. A few points:

    1) The reason every math class starts out with that is because often enough people _do_ forget it. Not to mention it really _is_ the basis for the beginnings of the explanation of what a derivative is.

    2) I’m exactly the other way around. Give me anything that has application in the real world and I hate it, because I don’t like the real world. I like to think theoretically. I like algorithms and drawings, not actual objects. I’m a CS/Math person at heart. It’s kind of amusing actually. I once liked chem, and then I got apprehensive. :p

    3) Math is hard, physics/chem is harder.

  4. Dan says:

    me…I’m the other way around with the math classes. I’ll be a math major wherever I end up going and the more math classes I take, the smarter of a person I seem. lol…I’d probably be pissed if in a given semester I were in just two math classes.

  5. Caroline says:

    I looove math! smile

    I love Physics too, but it’s always way over my head… And I’m pretty good at chem (at least in my public high school I am? I guess my bar is pretty low) but I hate it anyway.

    MIT scares me to no end — I’m going to fail out, first semester, and transfer to community college. Hopefully not smile but I’m still scared.

    <3 your blog, we all missed it wink

  6. nehalita says:

    Those psets scared me. A lot.

  7. Reid says:

    At my high school they require concurrent enrollment in BC Calc to take AP Physics (the C portion), so you already have some calc A background. I love both classes, and now it’s even more awesome because I don’t have to stress to hard about how I’m doing in either class. I love my schedule; it’s good to be a senior.

  8. Kim says:

    Liked the story! Good to know I’m not the only one who is beginning to be a bit apprehensive of math (I’m in BC this year) even though I’ve loved it throughout the rest of school. Good luck with that pset! It looks crazy, but then you know more math than I do… How long do they (professors) expect a pset to take?

  9. Aliera says:

    “Write down the constant coefficient homogeneous linear differential equation with characteristic polynomial p(s)= s3 – s”

    I disagree with the use of this as an example. It has shock value if you’re not familiar with the subject at all but it’s a really simple thing to remember how to do and do quickly.

  10. Dan says:

    Wow I NEVER thought MIT engineers, people accepted to MIT whatever their intended major, and so many other people, HATE math? If MIT people don’t, I guess no one does then.

  11. Lucy says:

    I still can’t get to that pset site. I’m taking some calc classes at a local college. Do these credits transfer over to MIT next fall or are these only used for placement purposes? How long does it take for you to do a pset in a class that’s easy for you, like 8.02, vs. a class that’s more difficult for you, like 18.02 or 18.03? How are final grades given at MIT? Is it mostly based on test scores or half and half between test scores and psets? And don’t students usually work in groups for psets?

  12. Lucy says:

    i think this is what i’m gonna feel like next year w/ 8.01:( thanks for the heads up though

  13. thekeri says:

    Yay, an update! I less than three you now.

    I feel for you – I’m taking two math classes this year too – AP Calc BC and AP Stats – and they’re on the same day!

    My first thought every other morning is “OH EM EFF GEE MATH KILL ME KILL ME KILL ME. It’s driving me to the point of insanity. (Ask nehalita. I sat in the back of calc today and rocked back and forth like a crazy lady for a good chunk of the class.)

    The 18.03 pset looks like… well, Mathese. An completely incomprehensible dialect of it, but Mathese nonetheless. Not fun.

    …It could be worse, I guess?

  14. elaine says:

    i came across your blog while searching google for pictures of ideas for something to wear to and anything but clothes party. your duct tape was awesome! anyway, i’m a mechanical engineering major at a little school called rose-hulman institute of technology, and just wanted to let you know that i think most engineers feel the same way you do about math!

    engineering gets better once all the math for math’s sake courses are over…

  15. Sulinya says:

    Aww that’s sad, I love math… Well, good luck with everything Laura- grin

  16. Elina says:

    Oh… I know the math sadness…I used to love math too…

    And remember the results from the second 18.03 exam… I was jumping out of joy on getting a “good score” and turns out 140 ppl got the “highest score possible”… hmmm

  17. Christina says:

    My problem with math is that I can spend lots of time working through it and taking tests and quizzes and doing homework, etc. etc……

    but at the end of the day, what have I learned?

    NOTHING. I’ve “learned” how to do odd things with random letters/numbers, though I have no idea WHY I am doing what I’m doing. What an accomplishment!

    [This is really incoherent and dumb. I am going to bed.]

  18. arielle says:

    do psets in any class at mit (this can be physics, chem, or math) actually help w/ tests? as in, are test questions similar to those in the homework so if you understand the homework, you wouldn’t have much of a problem w/ tests or are test questions so random that even if you understand homework problems, you need to really, really, really understand the concepts and ten billion other things in order to do well on tests? i guess i’m just kind of scared of being the dumbest person in a class w/ international science and math olympiad champions and getting like half of the class average on a test…

  19. Maria says:

    “Senior year I took AP Physics C (calc-based) and AP Calc AB. This might sound like a good idea, but its not. Not knowing the calc ahead of time was a pretty big deal. The first day of calc was spent reveiwing the slope of a line. […] The first day of physics was spent reveiwing derivatives. You might think it’s kind of hard to review things you’ve never even heard of before, and you’d be right. We were fully engrossed in Electricity and Magnetism before my calc teacher ever used the integral symbol. Clearly, this was not ideal.”

    i have struggled through the same misery this year. needless to say, once i learned calculus, i was much better at physics. whose idea was it to have people take a calc based physics class without knowing calculus first?

    regardless, i’ll see you at MIT next year! smile