Math as Puzzle Solving

When I was in something like 5th grade they gave everyone a test. The results of the test placed you in one of two math classes. No descriptions of the classes were given, and the teachers didn’t explain why we had to take the test. But the results were obvious. One class was segregating M&Ms into colors and adding, subtracting and dividing. The other class was learning basic algebra. I was in the dumb kids' math class. Of course, that’s a narrow-minded way to look at it. And as an adult I can appreciate all the nuanced arguments for tracking students and the unimportance of being “ahead” of anyone when you’re that young. When you’re 10, life looks less like a marathon than a sprint, and it sucks to be left in the dust. Moving through the next 20 years and, whether the tracking was accurate, or I played to the card I was dealt, I struggled with math for a very long time. As a nerd with a nerd father, I always harbored ambition that I might actually be a math genius, but alas, the tricks and tools of math just seemed to elude me. I coasted in high school and all but failed the second of three parts of calculus in college. The last bit there prompted my advisor at the time to encourage me to pursue a new major, as the computer science major at my alma mater was heavily focused on advanced math. Failing Calc II was an inauspicious sign. But something snapped in me this past year, and I dug up a wonderful little red book that was a required purchase in Bruce Pourciau’s Calc I class: Calculus Gems. The survey of math history provided a spark that encouraged me to reopen the struggles with math that I had experienced in the past. Reading about the discoveries of mathematicians and the genius involved was inspiring. What I discovered after taking a 10 year break from any form of higher-level math, and perhaps growing up a bit, is that any given math problem is a puzzle that can be solved. And that proofs, far from magical incantations by bright minds, were actually amazingly pragmatic. What I’ve discovered as an adult is that sitting down to do math problem sets, or to rework old proofs is actually quite fun, in the same way that doing jigsaw puzzles, sudoku or programming challenges is fun. It makes your brain think in a very logical way, which is far cry from the emotional and empathetic way we spend most of our days. So if you feel like math “isn’t for you” or that you’re not good at it. Find a good book with piles of exercises and solutions and start solving for x. The satisfaction of working out an inequality is pretty fantastic.