I had the inspiration to write this article when I was asked on Instagram if I was good at mathematics when I was younger. Then she proceeded to tell me that she was afraid of mathematics and wanted to go into engineering. As I read her message, I recognized myself in her. I saw myself a few years ago when I chose to continue my education and to go into software engineering at ÉTS.
I was utterly terrified of mathematics and physics classes when I looked at the curriculum of the program. There were so many! I honestly thought I would never get through it. But I did! And guess what? I also managed to get excellent grades!
Are you also interested in engineering but scared of maths? When I began my research in order to write this article, I realized that maths and physics courses are one of the biggest fears of future engineering students. You would be surprised to know how many people are afraid of them, and we must remember that we are not the only ones! If others can successfully pass these courses, you can too.
I’ll explain my background a little bit so you can better understand my story… and maybe give you some hope if you need it.
My primary school journey…
I have not talked about it openly on my blog yet, but my path in primary school was pretty difficult. Maybe I’ll write an entire article about my time in academia one day, but let’s say that early on, my parents were told that I should be medicated for my attention deficit disorder (ADD). They refused for a year or two as I had great and understanding teachers at the time.
My memories of this time are of my mother and I trying to do my homework. Every night, we would cry. For my part, I was discouraged to not be able to do my work. I did not understand the subject as I didn’t listen when it was taught during classes. But also because I was not able to concentrate long enough to complete the homework.
Eventually, my parents gave in and I started to take medication.
From Grade 1 to Grade 6, at the elementary level, it was difficult. A constant battle between my brain and me.
I’m telling you about this part of my life because I want to show you that no matter how difficult it is at school right now, there is always hope at the end of the tunnel for us to fulfill our dreams.
Me and mathematics… in high school
It was pretty catastrophic! In one sentence, let’s just say that in the beginning, my parents were not sure I would finish high school.
I will always remember the day I got the grade of “E” in my high school mathematics exam. At 12 years old, it was significant enough for me to remember that again today. I don’t know what happened that day, but I decided that I wanted more. I wanted to succeed. No need to excel, but E is pretty close to failure…!
From then on, I started asking more questions in class. I still remember it. My teachers were so patient with me. I was at all the possible extra hours in math when a professor was available to answer our questions and attended homework help on Tuesdays and Thursdays. My mother would drive for an hour only to allow me to participate for an hour!
Through all my high school years, I worked very hard. At first, I did not see any results in my school grades, but slowly, in Secondary 3 and 4, efforts began to pay off. I remember that these words were precisely used to describe me at the Secondary 5 Recognition Gala, where I received the “Academic Merit” award. Through my first year of high school to the last one, I was always getting the “Determination” prize, received by the students who put a lot of effort but do not see the result of their efforts. I was very happy that finally, for my last year, I received the merit award! Proof that hard work pays off.
Mathematics remained my pet peeve.
When I applied to go to Software Engineering at the École de Technologie Supérieure (ÉTS), do you know what I said to each person who spoke to me about the university, to keep me a way out?
“Yes, I’m going to ÉTS in September. But I don’t like mathematics. There are plenty of math, physics, chemistry classes… so I may not stay. I don’t like it, but at least I can say that I will have tried to go to university, that’s all I want.”
I wanted to protect myself. It was just my fears talking… I did not think I was able to get through all these problematic courses for me.
I passed through.
How did I improve my results?
There is no magic recipe, just a lot of constant and sustained effort. I never gave up. People often ask me where I get this perseverance from… It is difficult to define, I would say that it really came from intrinsic motivation, the desire to finally succeed and the hope that one day, I would stop struggling so much.
I was also surrounded by a tutor after school for 2 years, which I was fortunate to have enough money to pay with some sacrifices. I had great professors and good resources offered by my High School (tutoring at lunch, after-school tutoring, etc)
In a couple of weeks, I will share tips on how to get better in maths, but here are some quick tips :
- Find a good organization system that works well for you
- Don’t wait until the last minute, do the suggested exercises before the exam to have time to ask your questions
- Do as many exercises as possible because they are all different and are testing different parts of your comprehension
- Ask questions, never hesitate to ask for help to your professors
- If you don’t really like your assigned professor, try to reach out to other professors who teach the same class
- Write a summary of every single class before the next one to make sure you understood the theory
It takes me between 6 to 8 hours to do just 1 cheat sheet to get ready for my exams, so there is no secret, you need to invest the time you need to succeed!
Me and mathematics in software engineering at university
At university, I made a choice to take the two upgrade courses in math and physics even though I did not have to do them. It was an excellent decision for me that helped a lot. I was able to solidify my basics in these subjects and later to understand the more difficult concepts of the following courses much more quickly and easily.
Many of the students I meet are embarrassed and do not dare to take the upgrade courses and see it as a failure. This is not my case, I see it as help. A class that will allow me to better understand the subsequent courses, to succeed. I also see it as an investment of time since I consider that the work will be quicker to achieve for the next math class, having just seen the basics theory to build upon.
In all honesty, I discovered a small (or big) passion for mathematics at the university. I never thought I’d say that in my life, but it’s the case! We can always change, even in ways, we could never have imagined.
No matter how difficult it may have been for us to succeed in some mathematics courses, it does not foreshadow the future.
A few months ago, I was in the office of my future master’s advisor. It was at the very beginning of the process before I officially started my master’s degree. I told him about my plans for the future, which did not exist after graduating from my bachelor’s degree.
“[…] If I graduate, I don’t know what job I would do.”
That’s where he stopped me. It is not IF I graduate, but rather WHEN I’m going to graduate.
You have to learn to trust yourself and say you CAN succeed even if it’s difficult, EVEN if you do not like mathematics. There is always hope, and you have to think positively. When we want, we can!
What you need to remember from this article
It is not a prerequisite to have outstanding math skills to succeed in engineering.
We do not have to be geniuses at school either. All it takes is a lot of effort and asking for help around you.
If it’s your dream and your desire to be an engineer, then you can become one. Maybe you will have to put a little more effort than others in your classes, but what does it change in the end? No matter how long it takes, you can become what you want and accomplish your dreams. Some maths classes won’t stop you!
In my next blog post, I will share with you some tips on how you can get better grades in mathematics.