We spoke to mathematician and Eureka Prize-finalist Sophie Calabretto to combat the myth that maths is only for very smart people
Sophie Calabretto is a senior lecturer in Applied Mathematics at Macquarie University – and she’s on a mission to tell the world that you don’t have to be a “genius” to be good at maths (or any STEM subjects, for that matter). In fact, she was recently named a finalist for the 2019 Eureka Price for Promoting Understanding of Science for her efforts driving home this very message.
“Working at maths is the thing that makes you good at maths,” says Sophie.
“The reason I’m ‘good’ at maths is because I’ve been actively studying it for a very long time! If we’re counting from when I started primary school, that’s over 26 years — if you study anything for 26 years, you’d get very ‘good’ at it!”
However, the myth that maths (and to an extent, all of STEM) is somehow reserved for a select few with special abilities persists. And it’s contributing to the gender gap in STEM. One 2015 study published in Science found that women were less likely to be represented in fields that were perceived as requiring “raw talent” or brilliance, rather than those believed to require more hard work.
We spoke to Sophie to come up with 3 reasons why you don’t have to be a genius to be good at maths.
1. Practice makes perfect
Ever heard the terms ‘growth mindset’ and ‘fixed mindset’? Basically, growth mindset is one where you believe you can alter your abilities through effort and persistence, while people with a ‘fixed mindset’ believe they’re born with their abilities – in other words, you’re either good at maths, or you’re not and there’s nothing you can do about it.
The funny thing is that these mindsets can come true just by thinking them – if you believe you can get better at something, you’re more likely to put in the effort and, bingo, get better at it! If you believe failing one test means there’s no point trying on the next one, then guess what? You’ll probably fail again next time!
Sticking at a subject like maths can be tricky – especially when your lessons at school can sometimes seem a bit irrelevant. But it’s worth hanging in there.
“Maths is a subject where one topic builds on another,” says Sophie. “To do interesting things in maths, you need to have mastered the basics beforehand. As the old cliche goes, you have to crawl before you can walk, and you have to learn to julienne carrots before you can become a Michelin star chef.”
2. Geniuses are few and far between anyway
Being a ‘genius’ (whatever that even means) is actually pretty rare. Even if you take the (controversial) IQ approach, and say that someone with an IQ over 140 is a genius – that’s less than 0.25% of the population, or one in 400 people.
Considering that one popular prediction suggests up to 75% of future jobs will require STEM skills and STEM knowledge – if only ‘geniuses’ were up to the task, then we wouldn’t get much done!
Or as Sophie puts it: “There are only enough so-called geniuses to make up a tiny subset of anything, so most people in STEM would have to be normal people just to make up the sheer numbers!”
3. It’s not a race, and you don’t have to be the top of your class
Let’s get mathematical: within any group, whether it’s your year at high school or a university maths course – there will be a normal distribution of skills that looks like a ‘bell curve’. That is, fat in the middle and tapering off at either end – showing a small number of people at the lower- and higher end of performers, and the majority sitting somewhere in the middle. Not everyone can be at the top of the class – it would break our graphs if that was the case!
Also, whether it takes you a day or a month to nail a difficult maths problem – you still nailed the problem. And university courses don’t have to be taken at full-time load. Part-time courses can be a great option if you think you’d like a bit of extra breathing space to put in the effort needed to get your best results (remember, practice makes perfect?).
This article is sponsored by Macquarie University. Find out more about studying maths at Macquarie here
Author: Gemma Chilton
Gemma is the Managing Editor of Careers with STEM magazine. She has previously worked as Digital Managing Editor at Australian Geographic and a staff writer at Cosmos science magazine.