5 Calculator Hacks You Will Actually Want To Use

By Gabe Nelson
calculator 1There are many reasons for someone to need to learn how to use a calculator. One of the main reasons to learn how to use a calculator better is testing, especially the SAT.

Many people just use the calculator they have built into their phones, but there are some tests that require a specific type of calculator. Experienced math geeks, teachers, and home tutors all know how important it is to know what type of calculator you are allowed to have before you go into a test.

Knowing these tips and tricks will help you in a test, and it’s important to know how to get around your calculator efficiently. All of these tips are things you will use and will help you get correct answers faster.

1. Double-Check

This might seem obvious, but it is an easy one to forget when you are focused on a test. There should be an entry line on your calculator where what you just typed appears. If there isn’t one, then get a different calculator.

Look at that line before you finish the equation. It is a very simple tip that can keep you from making unnecessary mistakes. It’s so easy to type numbers in the wring order by accident or hit the wrong key while you are moving quickly.

Double checking that all of your decimal points are in the right place can be the difference between a right answer and a wrong one. Getting a single thing wrong when you are typing in your equation could end in a wrong answer. Double-check before you finish and you should be fine.

2. Know Your Calculator

You know how sometimes you go to do something a little unprepared, but it’s okay because you can figure it out as you go? Calculators are not like that. If you go into a test without knowing what all the buttons on your calculator do, you are going to spend a lot of time wishing you had practiced.

Sometimes there is a specific button you have to push to make another button work the way you want it to. Maybe the sine button is in a whole different place than you have ever seen and it takes you precious moments to find.

Making sure you know how to use your calculator might be the most important tip on calculators there is. The calculators that are used during serious tests are so different than the ones on your phone or that you might have used before. Make sure you know how to use your testing calculator before you take it to a test.

3. Don’t Overdo It

calculator 2

You may have heard that there is a hack to solve every single math problem you will ever come across, and all you need is a powerful enough calculator. That might even be true. The problem would be the absurd amount of time it would take to type it out.

Because there are so many buttons and options and menu items on the more high tech calculators, it takes a lot of time to use them. Figuring out how to do a really complicated equation on your calculator could involve going between menus and pressing an absurd amount of buttons.

Sometimes it is better to put the calculator down and do it by hand. It is usually faster too if you are working on a big problem. Use your calculator for more simple problems you want to get through quickly.

Doing multiplication and division on your calculator makes sense. It helps you get the right answer immediately. Doing a whole equation with lots of parts is just a waste of time. Use your calculator for the problems it can solve faster than you, not just for every problem.

4. Program

One of the most important programs you need to make sure your calculator has is the system of linear equations program. It is going to make putting in a linear equation so much quicker and more simple, and is an invaluable system for students.

The system lets you type in linear equations, which are a key part of high school and college math. Knowing how to order the numbers and where to start is basically all Algebra I is. This calculator function lets you type in your equation as is and then it solves it.

It is not foolproof. You should make sure the answer makes sense when the calculator is done. You might even have to do some quick math to reorder the equation enough for the calculator to understand what you want. All of that is worth it to never have to go through a whole quadratic equation again.

5. Math Button

There should be a MATH button on your calculator, and it’s about to become your favorite button. The MATH button converts your decimals into fractions.

It can also convert fractions to decimals if your equation decides to do things that way. It can also cube for you. It can cube a basic number, it can cube a root, it can cube whatever you feel like cubing.

When you click the math button you are going to get the options FRAC and DEC so you can convert into fractions or decimals. You will never have to do that on paper again. Type in your numbers, press the best button on your calculator, and never have to do a conversion that annoying again.


calculator 3

Your calculator is one of the only things you can take with you to a test. It is on your side and there to help as long as you use it correctly. There is no need to panic about doing simple equations quickly when you have a calculator to help.

Knowing exactly how to use your calculator is going to get you pretty far. Going into a test confident in your tools is going to make you a bit calmer. It is also going to save you a lot of time panicking about not knowing how to use your calculator during your test.

Make sure you have the right calculator that will make the test more simple. Double-check everything you type in to avoid stupid mistakes. Remember to only use the calculator when it can solve a problem faster than you.


In Defense of Your Humanities Degree: 5 Reasons Why Studying the Humanities Isn’t a Waste of Time

By Danika McClure

In the wake of a graduate shortage in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math), degrees in the humanities and soft sciences have increasingly been deemed as frivolous and less valuable to the American job market. Shortages in technical industries across the country have forced lawmakers to take action, often by decreasing funding to the arts and soft sciences in favor of colleges which produce more STEM graduates.

Rosemary G. Feal, who directs the Modern Language Association of America, attributes the decline in funding for the arts and humanities in the United States particularly to “legislators who themselves have not experienced first-hand the value of studying the humanities.”

The most recent attacks on the arts and soft sciences come from Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin, who told members of the associated press last month that he planned on reallocating the state’s higher education budget, giving more funding to colleges which produced the most STEM graduates.  Ironically enough, Bevin received his undergraduate degree in Japanese studies from Washington and Lee University, a private liberal arts institution.

By reallocating the state’s budget, Bevin hopes to curb the state’s STEM graduate shortage. But Bevin is just the latest in a series of lawmakers that don’t see the value in a humanities education, buying into the all too common myth of the unemployable liberal arts major.

As has been noted numerous times by educators everywhere, completing a degree in the social sciences, humanities, and the arts does not automatically condemn you to a life of retail or unemployment. The opposite, in fact may be true, as studying the liberal arts teaches students a variety of skills most sought after by employers. Rather than looking for technical skills, 95 percent of employers, prefer candidates who display “a demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems,” skillsets which humanities majors are more likely to have upon graduation.

While there are strong voices present in politics and even the education sector, there is proven value in studying the humanities, and as a person who has spent a large majority of her life in the arts and humanities, I’ve found many of the skills I learned in these “frivolous” courses more valuable to my work than any technical education I received while attending college.  Here are 5 reasons why pursuing a humanities degree isn’t a waste of time.

  1. Thinking Only About Shortages in the STEM Fields Will Oversupply the Workforce

While it cannot be understated that America is in the midst of a STEM crisis, reducing funding for programs outside of the hard sciences will ultimately oversupply the workforce in the scientific and technological sphere. After all, this isn’t the first time that the U.S. has experienced a workforce shortage; according to The Washington Post, this is a mistake the U.S. has perpetuated previously. A generation ago, lawyers made more money than investment bankers; but in the present day, the workforce is oversaturated with law graduates, while the investment banking industry is constantly searching for qualified candidates to fill positions.

While America does need to produce a certain number of STEM graduates in order to keep up with the global economy, there are other complex issues which graduates will have to confront in future years–issues which will require adaptability, in a variety of different environments.

  1. Humanities Education Gives Employees a Global Perspective

As business evolves to be ever globally-minded, business owners, civic leaders, and politicians are increasingly looking to understand the cultural and social climate of countries around the globe, and are counting on humanities graduates to better understand the cultural, historical, and political differences present in these countries.

Many large and revered corporations have failed to expand into overseas markets by ignoring cultural differences present in those markets.

“Some of the most successful American companies, including Walmart in Germany and TJK in Holland have failed overseas,” explains Professor Harry Lane, who teaches in Northeastern University’s School of Business, “because they did not understand how cultural differences would affect their business models.”

Lane, who has spent the past 30 years teaching individuals how to adjust to overseas markets, adds, “Thanks to globalization, an executive deals with more organizations, governments, and people, many of which are vastly different from the entities the executive is accustomed to and from each other.”

Those who have spent time studying the humanities and social sciences are able and ready to help their employer adapt to a variety of situations, partially because of their ability to adapt to any given situation and their proficient social skills, but also because humanities graduates have likely dipped their toes in a variety of social subjects including politics, sociology, anthropology, and language. These skillsets and areas of study allow graduates to adapt more quickly to the history and culture of a region, adding value to employers who seek to quickly develop relationships and transition into lucrative interactions in unfamiliar territories.

  1. Having an In-Demand Degree Doesn’t Necessarily Guarantee Job Placement

Given the fact that college has become increasingly expensive over the past decade, it makes sense that people are choosing majors based on their “employability factor.” Recent studies indicate that nearly 82 percent of 2015 graduates researched their field of study before choosing a degree path at their college.

If obtaining a certain degree guaranteed you a job, this kind of long term thinking would make perfect sense. But many professors, such as Jay Halfond of Boston University, have been speaking out against this line of thinking. In an interview with EvoLLLution, the professor notes, “In my view, it is dangerous and even corrupting to proceed down a path that shows that higher education ensures lucrative jobs soon after graduation. But we need to do a far better job demonstrating the relevance of a broad, general education, while linking what we teach to what is critical in the professional world.”

While there are jobs that require certain skillsets affiliated with specific degrees, generally speaking, your degree may have little to do with your career success. Recent research indicates that 62 percent of college graduates are working in jobs which require a degree, but only 27 percent of graduates are working in careers related to their major.

So what are employers looking for?

Many companies have begun seeking out candidates who have skillsets that are particularly developed among humanities majors: those who are adaptable, possess high levels of emotional intelligence, and are able to fit into the company’s pre established company culture.  That is to say, employers are less worried about your degree program and GPA, and are paying more attention to your personality, adaptability, and your predisposition to upholding company values.

  1. Humanities Courses Teach You How to Grapple with Uncertainty

In many STEM courses, students are presented with factual information and straightforward answers. Humanities classrooms, by contrast, are more likely to present students with material that is subjective, in which analyzing and considering a question is more important that giving a correct answer.

John Horgan, a professor at Stevens Institute of Technology explains his own defense of the humanities, writing “The humanities are subversive. They undermine the claims of all authorities, whether political, religious or scientific. This skepticism is especially important when it comes to claims about humanity, about what we are, where we came from, and even what we can be and should be.”

He adds later that by the end of his courses, his students will learn to question all authorities including himself. “You’ll question what you’ve been told about the nature of reality, about the purpose of life, about what it means to be a good person. Because that, for me, is the point of the humanities: they keep us from being trapped by our own desire for certainty.”

  1. The Job Prospects and Income for Humanities Majors Aren’t as Dire as Has Been Reported


Image Source: cew.georgetown.edu

As grim as the job prospects seem to be for humanities majors right out of school, studies show that obtaining a job isn’t quite as difficult as is typically reported. In fact, the average unemployment rate for new graduates in the humanities is right on par with those with computer science and math degrees (9% v 9.1%).

Other studies indicate that humanities majors end up making more money on average than their peers who study the hard sciences. In a column written for The Wall Street Journal, Scott Samuelson cites a study performed by the Association of American Colleges and Universities which found that “at peak earning ages (56-60 years) workers who majored as undergraduates in the humanities or social sciences earn annually on average about $2000 more than those who majored as undergraduates in professional, or pre-professional fields.” Once again, employers were looking to hire graduates with the ability “to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems.”

Author Bio: Danika is a musician from the Northwest who sometimes takes a 30 minute break from feminism to enjoy a tv show. You can follow her on twitter @sadwhitegrrl

 Whether you’re studying the humanities or STEM, The Secrets of Top Students can help you get better grades!

The Liberal Arts Student’s Guide to STEM

Even if you’re a liberal arts / humanities student, you will probably have to take a course in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) at some point in your college career.  Check out this new article I wrote on how to succeed in STEM, even if you think you’re “just not good at math.”

Want more tips on college success?  Check out The Secrets of Top Students.


8 Deep Study Tips for Math Students (Guest Post)

By Harry Red.  Harry is a developer and math fanatic who helps students at exammastery.com

Deep study is a rare commodity. It’s what happens when you’re studying at your peak ability. Mathematics definitely requires lots of deep study. But it doesn’t really come naturally to us. With some practice though, you can train yourself to fall into deep study mode more easily.


1. Make a dent

Ever spent a whole day avoiding the actual hard work you wanted to do? Ended up doing busywork instead?

Everyone’s done that.

Fortunately there’s a way out of it: ignore things that are trivial but urgent (chores etc.) for a while, and make a dent in that difficult, non-urgent thing you’re somehow avoiding. Make some small amount of progress on it.

It doesn’t have to be big. It may take several attempts. It may be just a vague, uncertain feeling of having understood the subject a tiny bit better. But it can release a lot of anxiety – conscious or otherwise – and give you some energy and insight so that you can later nail the thing completely.

In math, small insights can make a really big difference towards understanding some larger concept. A single, apt diagram, a carefully remembered assumption, or an unwritten, abstract and seemingly trivial equation or mathematical fact can be enough to set your mind on a marathon to finally connect all those little dents that you made when you last studied the subject.

2. Jump around when working on questions

At least two bad things happen when you’re neck-deep in math: tunnel vision and myopia. Not seeing other parts of a question, and focusing too much on the minutiae of just one aspect of it.

Both waste time and increase your risk of failure.

So next time you find yourself stuck in tunnel vision or math myopia, stop yourself. Feel free to jump around. Go back to the question and pick out key words or concepts. See if you can quickly verify given results. (Trig identities are usually a good target for this.) Recall definitions – maybe write them down.

The point is to engage with the material at varying levels of breadth and intensity. Actively avoid the thing you were working on: it brought you into tunnel vision, so you want to get as far away from it as possible.

This can save you both study- and exam-time. Both are extremely valuable.

3. Change your views on proofs using the ‘scaffold’ method

Writing a mathematical proof can be much like constructing a building.

First, you need a construction plan, or at least a rough idea of where to begin. Then comes some scaffolding and preparation. Then the actual construction – putting things in place so they’ll stay there when the scaffolding is removed.

Suppose you’re asked to prove something in an exam. You understand clearly what you’re asked to prove, you’ve broken down the problem into smaller parts as best you can, and you’ve got a few ideas of how to get from one thing to another and then to something that is at least close to what you’re asked to show. However, something is still stopping you from actually writing down the proof, because you’re not sure you’ve got the details figured out correctly.

Cases like these are where the scaffold method is most useful. The idea is this: write the scaffolds in, then do the actual construction work.

That is, don’t worry too much about the intermediate steps and their mathematical rigour for the moment. Instead, write down what you are able to write down; for instance, any intermediate steps, leaving some free lines between them. This will set the problem out more clearly in your mind, and may even trigger memories of similar proofs that you’ve worked through during revision.

4. Don’t neglect boring stuff

As strange as it may sound, you need to be aware of how bored you are while you’re studying.

When you’re in the ‘bored’ mode, you’re just trying to get by. It’s likely that you’ll miss very important things if you just coast through a part of your subject without conjuring up actual interest for it.

You need to prevent this. Monitor your boredom levels (only you can do that accurately), and take a break whenever they spike. (When I say ‘monitor’ here, I don’t mean make lists and charts. Just use your subjective judgement.)

Taking a break in such situations is effective because everyone’s level of enthusiasm for something drops once they’ve spent a long time expending mental energy on it. Enthusiasm is replenished with rest and time spent doing more enjoyable or relaxing activities.

So take that break. You will lose a bit of study time, but as long as your time-management is not too far off you won’t lose anything important. Try not to think of this as lost study time. A difficult, less interesting subject is best studied with a fresh mind, not an exhausted, interest-starved one that will make all the wrong connections at the worst possible time.

Sound obvious? Maybe so. You should be taking breaks anyway. But monitoring your boredom levels is a good way of measuring a lot of things in one go. Boredom is complicated. Taking that extra break because your boredom indicator goes critical will help you avoid missing important bits of your subject.

5. Watch out for behaviour deemed ‘interesting’

Sometimes you’ll get questions like this:

a) Investigate the function f(x), particularly its properties with regard to |some topic on the course|. (4 marks)

b) Draw suitable conclusions from this. (2 marks)

I call this a professorial question – it’s asking you something in a roundabout way. These questions might explicitly ask you for ‘interesting’ behaviour, or they might just instruct you to ‘draw suitable conclusions’ from some mathematical argument. In a lot of cases, what they’re really asking you to do is to link the question to ‘interesting’ behaviour that you’ve previously studied in your course. Physics exams are especially prone to this.

It’s like you almost need to know what to do in advance.

The trick is to identify ‘interesting’ special behaviour before the exam starts.

Whenever your lecturer, teacher or textbook goes on about so-called interesting behaviour, pay extra attention. You may be looking at something that is more exam-relevant than you think.

However, it’s not always easy to spot when this is happening. Sometimes it’s obvious. Sometimes you can smell interesting behaviour when one part of a course links in to a much larger field.

For instance, in a course on algebra you may be told that there’s no general algebraic solution for any polynomial of fifth degree or greater, and to get usable numbers out of such equations, we usually need to develop numerical techniques for solving these, which in turn is a huge topic in mathematics.

6. Start with a long attention span

Mathematics contains a lot of information. Simply reading it will take up much of your mental bandwidth.

You’ll need to have a big enough attention span to process everything and avoid missing important bits. The tiniest detail can make all the difference.

But nowadays, it’s hard to start anything with a long attention span. So you’ll likely need to spend (read: waste) time trying to adjust your attention span.

Here’s what you can do. Before you start a difficult exercise, go read a slightly heady but non-math text for 15 minutes. Then start that exercise.

You’ll find that your attention span has expanded a bit.

The reason why I’d recommend reading a non-math book is that you don’t want to exhaust the math faculty of your brain. See what kind of books will work best for you.

Best part? Over time, you can read entire books like this. I’ve read The Book of Five Rings, The Art of War and most of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos using only this method.

7. Return to neutral + leave study hooks for tomorrow

It’s hard to get motivated to do a long, hard math study session.

Here’s what you do. Keep an eye out for interesting topics or problems that you’ve just encountered near the end of a study session. Then, don’t study them. Restrain yourself and leave those topics or exercises for the next session.

That gives you an incentive to get back into the material even if you are distracted and don’t start your next study session when you intended to.

There’s a passive variation on this – call it returning to neutral. That is, don’t leave a tangled mess of study notes on your desk after a long session, because when you come back to it in the morning you’ll lose at least some motivation in cleaning that mess up.

8. Use hard exercises

Pick a few hard exercises on your course. Make sure they’re likely to be relevant for your exam. Struggle with them.

When you’ve solved them, memorize some of the key insights that led you to solve the problem. That’s right: memorize them.

Why spend time on even more memorization? The reason is that math exams often reuse the same kinds of problems. So if you already to know how to solve them at a basic level, you’ll have a real advantage in the exam.

But even if those hard problems don’t turn up in the exam, they provide some of the best teaching you’ll ever get. By definition, they’re going to be weird in some way. And understanding weird things improves your mind.

More math study tips on www.exammastery.com

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7 Careers In Healthcare That Could Change Your Life (Guest Post)

At some point, it seems all children are asked what they want to be when they grow up. If you were never sure of the answer, but somehow knew that you would be most satisfied doing something that helps others, a career in healthcare could be precisely what you’re looking for.

Your desire to help other people may actually benefit you. Psychology Today suggests that helping others fixes a higher happiness set point. The happiness set point theory says that a human’s level of well-being (happiness) is primarily determined by heredity and personality traits that were ingrained during early life. Researchers have found, though, that a person can raise their happiness set point by focusing on helping others.

Interested in a career in healthcare?

Interested in a career in healthcare?

As jobs in other fields disappear, healthcare jobs are on the rise. Opportunities in healthcare and health technology will continue to be strong for years to come, according to heathcarecareers.org.

Becoming a doctor is an obvious choice for helping people, but medical school is not for everyone. Fortunately, there are a number of other avenues you can take that will lead you to a career in healthcare.

Registered Nurse

As a registered nurse you would directly treat patients, help educate them and provide emotional support to patients and their family members. A registered nurse is often the first person on the job, and the first to get to know a patient’s history and symptoms. You would most likely be the professional a patient would turn to for answers and encouragement. Nursing is a life-changing career for anyone with a passion for healthcare and helping others.

Pharmacy Technician

As a pharmacy technician you would deal with people when they’re either sick or trying to maintain health. It would be your job to help licensed pharmacists provide medication and health care products to patients who need them. Routine tasks include the preparation of medicine, including properly labeling bottles and counting tablets or capsules. You have options when it comes to learning this job. You can either attend class in person or learn to be a pharmacy technician online. For a people-person, working as a pharmacy technician allows you to be a comforting voice during what might be a stressful time for a patient.


While the idea of drawing blood and transporting it to a laboratory for analysis may not appeal to everyone, it is exactly what a phlebotomist does. A great phlebotomist is calm, compassionate and can make the act of drawing blood seem effortless. If you’re someone who can soothe a crying child or calm a nervous adult, this may be the perfect career fit for you.

Physical Therapist

A physical therapist helps restore function and relieve pain in those who suffer from injury or disease. Pain can change a patient’s quality of life and even impact their personality. As a physical therapist you would have the ability to help them regain normal function and to encourage patients as they are on the road to recovery. You would also help patients with permanent conditions find adaptations that make their lives easier, thereby changing a person’s entire life.


Sonographers direct high-frequency sound waves into areas of a patient’s body in order to generate an image that will be assessed for a variety of medical issues. In one day you may do everything from looking for a blocked artery to helping parents determine the sex of their unborn child. No two days are alike in the life of a sonographer. If you like variety and can deal with a myriad of different patient personalities, this career can use someone like you.

Radiation Therapist

Radiation therapists are part of a medical radiation oncology team, working primarily with cancer patients by administering radiation at targeted cancer cells. As a radiation therapist you would work with patients at one of the toughest times of their life. A compassionate nature and professional attitude are both required for such a position.


A dietitian can work in many settings, including: hospitals, schools and nursing homes. As a trained dietitian it would be your job to plan food and nutrition programs for the population you’re working with and to supervise the preparation and delivery of meals. Dietitians change lives by recommending dietary changes that can help people live a longer, healthier life.

Healthcare jobs are here to stay. It’s just a matter of finding the one that speaks to you and investigating what it will take to get you there.

Guest Post by Chuck Flint.
Chuck teaches Pilates and writes about health and wellness from his beachside home in California.

The first step to getting a great career is getting great grades in school.  The Secrets of Top Students can show you how!

What’s the point of a college education?

There have been a lot of articles questioning the value of a college education recently – particularly the value of a liberal arts education. Take, for example, Frank Bruni’s The Imperiled Promise of College and Michelle Singletary’s Not All College Majors Are Created Equal. These articles warn against choosing majors that tend to result in low-paying jobs (or no jobs at all). That’s why I was glad to read Alina Tugend’s article Vocation or Exploration? Pondering the Purpose of College, which argues that college students can and should study the humanities. As Ms. Tugend writes, the question is this: is the purpose of college to “ensure a good job after graduation,” or “to give students a broad and deep humanities education that teaches them how to think and write critically? Or can a college education do both?” I’m going with door number three.

In the article, Ms. Tugend notes that what students major in has a greater impact on their future earnings than in previous decades.

So does that mean I should urge our son to pursue a degree he doesn’t have any interest in because it may provide him with a higher-paying job — or any job, for that matter — after college?

No, Professor Carnevale said, because if you don’t like what you do, you won’t do it well. The point is that “young people now need to have a strategy,” he said. “If you major in art, realize you will have to get a master’s degree. The economic calculus has changed.”

I like that line – if you don’t like what you do, you won’t do it well.

When I was in college, my most rewarding classes were in the humanities. I specialized in medieval history and got an M.A. in Art History before I majored and got a job in Computer Science. Do I regret studying history and art history, where job options are extremely limited? Not in the least. I’m glad I have a background in the humanities – I think it makes me a more well-rounded, knowledgeable, appreciative person. (However, I’m lucky that I didn’t go into debt to get my degrees. If I did owe lots of money, perhaps I wouldn’t be so pro-liberal arts.) One of the best things about Columbia, my alma mater, is that it has a Core Curriculum. All undergrads, no matter what their major, are required to take classes like Literature Humanities and Contemporary Civilization, where they have literally hundreds of pages of reading each week on everything from Homer to Dante to Freud. This was probably the highlight of my academic career.

Lastly, I was quoted in a Crain’s New York Business article last week – Goodbye, ‘bamboo ceiling’ – Corporate barriers spur Asian-Americans to start fast-growing enterprises, by Emily Laermer.

When Stefanie Weisman was Stuyvesant’s valedictorian in 1999, she said, the school was about half Asian. She described her time there as ‘the most intense four years of my life’ because of its competitiveness.

‘The students there are bright and hardworking, partly because there are so many Asian-American students,” she said, citing the influence of ‘tiger parents.’ . . . .

It’s also possible that tiger parenting ultimately backfires. Ms. Weisman, who is writing a book about academic success, said that those who enjoy learning – rather than studying because their parents insist – tend to do better professionally.

Give yourself the gift of great grades.  Order your copy of The Secrets of Top Students today!

The Black and the Gold: Computer Science Courses at Harvey Mudd College

I just read a very interesting piece in The New York Times about Maria Klawe, the president of Harvey Mudd College. Dr. Klawe and her colleagues have been trying to increase the number of female college students majoring in Computer Science – currently only 18% of CS undergrads are women. Here’s one of their initiatives:

In 2005, the year before Dr. Klawe arrived, a group of faculty members embarked on a full makeover of the introductory computer science course, a requirement at Mudd.

Known as CS 5, the course focused on hard-core programming, appealing to a particular kind of student — young men, already seasoned programmers, who dominated the class. This only reinforced the women’s sense that computer science was for geeky know-it-alls.

“Most of the female students were unwilling to go on in computer science because of the stereotypes they had grown up with,” said Zachary Dodds, a computer scientist at Mudd. “We realized we were helping perpetuate that by teaching such a standard course.”

To reduce the intimidation factor, the course was divided into two sections — “gold,” for those with no prior experience, and “black” for everyone else. Java, a notoriously opaque programming language, was replaced by a more accessible language called Python. And the focus of the course changed to computational approaches to solving problems across science.

“We realized that we needed to show students computer science is not all about programming,” said Ran Libeskind-Hadas, chairman of the department. “It has intellectual depth and connections to other disciplines.”

I really like the idea of having “black” classes for advanced students and “gold” classes for beginners, as a way of encouraging more women to go into computer science. (Plus calling it gold makes it sound better!) When I studied CS in college, I was intimidated not by the fact that the vast majority of my classmates were male, but that they had way more experience than I did. I had never even coded a “Hello world” program before, while they had been playing around with programming languages and taking computers apart since they were kids, or at least since high school. It was a huge challenge to keep up with them.

However, I also felt that my intro CS classes were much more accessible than my advanced classes, which catered even more to seasoned – and mostly male – programmers. I don’t think it would be enough to offer separate intro classes for experienced and novice students, and then throw them all together the next semester. I wonder if and how this extra support for inexperienced CS students could be continued after the intro level. I, for one, wanted a much greater variety of CS courses than were offered at Columbia. In my view, there were too many theory courses and not enough practical ones. There also weren’t enough courses that showed different ways technology could be used in society. How do you think women should be encouraged to go into computer science?

Also of interest – Ivy League acceptance rates hit an all time low this year. At Harvard, for example, it’s only 5.9%! I have two things to say about this: (1) The rise of electronic applications means that more under-qualified applicants have been applying to top schools, potentially skewing the results. (2) There are plenty of good schools out there, so don’t stress if you can’t go to an Ivy League. You’ll do fine as long as you choose a school that values education, lets you pursue your interests, and fits your budget. Good luck to all of those heading off to college next year!

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Want to increase the number of students in STEM? Try grade inflation

There’s been a lot of talk these days about how to get more students to study STEM (science/technology/engineering/math) in college. Of course, one of the problems is that the math/science education provided in many high schools is inadequate. But there are also lots of students with exceptional educational backgrounds who decide they just can’t hack it in STEM. See the article “Why Science Majors Change Their Minds (It’s Just So Darn Hard),” by Christopher Drew in The New York Times, from November 4, 2011.

Here’s my half-serious suggestion: use grade inflation. Elite students are used to getting straight-As and stellar SAT scores. Throw them into an environment where they’re suddenly getting Bs and Cs, and of course they’re going to freak out. The humanities have endured grade inflation and survived. Many teachers now use A+s to signal extraordinary achievement. Honestly, I don’t care if you raise grades in STEM or lower grades in the humanities, but there should be some kind of standardization. Why should STEM courses have completely different grading criteria? Teachers can do whatever they want; there’s almost no regulation. If an engineering student is struggling just to get a C and sees his roommate earning an easy A in anthropology, he’s not going to be happy.

Top universities also need to offer more practical STEM courses, not just theoretical. Students who can’t or don’t want to join academia are given short shrift. I had to take a continuing education web design course at NYU one summer because there was nothing like that offered at Columbia. The requirements for STEM majors should also be less restrictive. As a Computer Science major at Columbia, I couldn’t take a lot of CS courses that interested me because they didn’t fulfill the requirements for my concentration, and I didn’t have the time or money to pursue them. Instead I had to take a bunch of required theory courses that I detested and never got any use out of.

As a side note, Sesame Street is also getting in on the math/science craze. I’ll be interested to check back in 15 years and see if it made a difference.

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Re: Not all college majors are created equal

I just posted this on The Washington Post‘s website, in response to the article “Not all college majors are created equal,” by Michelle Singletary. The original article is here.

Sometimes, getting a good education and pursuing what you love are worth more than the immediate economic benefits of an in-demand major. Should you really go into engineering and hate what you do for the rest of your life? Yes, more people should consider going to state schools so they can take on less debt, but you know what, this recession isn’t going to last forever. There will be a time when there will be more jobs out there and English majors and maybe even architects will be able to support themselves. The author wants students to know what they want to do after they graduate. That seems like wishful thinking to me. Can most people really carve their career paths in stone when they’re 18 years old? I can’t even do it now, when I’m… well, never mind. If you do what the author wants, you’ll just have more people starting out in STEM (science/ technology/ engineering/ math) majors, finding out they don’t like it, and switching majors – perhaps even delaying their graduation and costing them more money – or sticking with it and quitting their unfulfilling STEM-related jobs in a couple of years. (See stats here)

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