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5 Things I Wish I’d Known as an Incoming STEM Major

Posted by David Garringer

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If you had told me that I’d be a STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) major at a Christian college —mathematics, to be precise— during my senior year of high school, I would have looked at you oddly, waited a minute, and asked, “what’s the punchline?” In high school, I thought that undergraduate math was too sophisticated for all but the brainiest students, and I certainly wasn’t one of those. I was thinking about pursuing a business major.

Boy was I wrong. Let me explain.

Before my first year was up, I’d become a math major, taken a job as a TA in Wheaton’s math department, and was studying more complicated ideas than I’d ever thought I could. Had I underestimated myself and somehow uncovered a hidden genius? Could it be that math was easier than I’d imagined? No. I’d fallen in love with the discipline, realized what it had to offer, and decided to take it as far as I could. Here are five things I wish I’d realized as an incoming math major:

  1. Starting from the bottom doesn’t keep you back.

I started out in one of the lowest-level math courses offered at Wheaton: Calculus I. I took the class as an elective for my business major, wanting to be sure I could perform at some level of college math. Soon, I learned that I liked calculus — a lot. I started showing up early for class to help other students with their homework problems before the professor got there. Eventually, the professor asked if I would be interested in working as a TA for the course. I said yes, declared the major, and was off to the races!

Looking around, I realized that most of the other math majors entered their freshmen year with AP credit for calc, allowing them to go straight into Calculus II and other, higher classes. At first, I was discouraged. I thought, “all these people must be smarter than me! How will I ever get to where they are?” It took me a while to learn that everyone completes their requirements at their own pace. It didn’t take long before I caught up with my peers, but challenges loomed ahead.

  1. Science can be difficult, but extremely rewarding.

As I learned more and more from other students in the department, I realized that there were two required courses for math majors that always were spoken of in hushed tones. The more feared of these was the notorious Modern Algebra, a rigorous, proof-based class at Wheaton designed to introduce students to the terminology, methods, and thinking required for advanced-level mathematics. By the time I entered the class myself, I was very nervous. I’d done fairly well in other courses, but was by no means convinced that I was up to this challenge.

The first day of class came, and with it, the first homework assignment. I remember feeling the full range of emotions that evening—confusion, despair, joy when I thought I had an answer. This quickly turned to sorrow when I realized I didn’t answer it.

Soon, something strange began to happen. As the the class kept on going, I realized that I could understand what was going on more and more. By the end of the course, I’d come to a solid grasp of the material that was once so hard to approach. The class wound up giving me something I’d never expected: an appreciation and skill for an intimidating subject.

  1. The professors love what they do and want to interact with you.

Throughout my studies here, I’ve realized that my professors are more than just instructors: they’re dedicated believers who want to develop personal relationships with their students. One of our emeritus professors summed it up well at a recent all-department gathering: “Whether you’re a shooting star or think you’re a lesser light, our faculty love you and care about you deeply.” In different times in my studies, I’ve been at both extremes. Regardless of my performance, though, I’ve always been able to approach my professors with anything I needed, be it questions on a problem or a request for a letter of recommendation. This is a truly unique part of studying a STEM field in a Christian context, and I’ve found it to be very rewarding. 

  1. Asking questions is everything.

When I started out as a math major, I was hesitant to raise my hand in the classroom or go to help sessions. I reasoned that only the people struggling with the material needed that kind of assistance. I certainly didn’t.

That kind of attitude did nothing but cripple my learning. I learned the hard way that not everything comes easily or naturally to me, as much as I’d liked to think so. I found that asking questions—both in class and at study sessions—is really important! It let me vocalize and process my thoughts, and let my instructors know that I was engaged during class. I also realized something else: there’s a huge chance that if you’ve got a question in a STEM class, a large part of the class has the same question. In every class I’ve taken, asking questions has strengthened my learning and helped me progress as a mathematician. 

  1. Science is more beautiful than you think.

Look at the equation below:

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 This formula, known as Euler’s identity, is one of the most famous examples of mathematical beauty. It combines natural, complex, irrational, and natural numbers in a simple expression. Each one of these elements plays an important part in different fields of math, and this particular combination is a wonderful, pure statement of abstract truth. How cool is that!

In my mathematical studies and pursuit of a major in STEM, I’ve come to realize that one of the most rewarding parts of the discipline is its intrinsic elegance and beauty. The ways in which we study patterns, the abstractions we devise to explain these patterns, and the fields of interest rising from these simple building blocks are, to me, amazing things that are worthwhile on their own merit. This is true for other STEM fields, as well—just think of the wonder of the observable universe that we study in physics, the vast array of the properties of matter studied in chemistry, or the enrapturing beauty of life studied in biology!

Bottom line: studying these disciplines and the pursuit of a STEM major at a Christian college is by no means hampering. In fact, it’s rewarding! By tracing the handiwork of God in the created world, both visible and invisible, we come to a deeper appreciation of Who He is, who we are, and how we should interact with His world in the light of this understanding.

Interested in learning more about STEM? Click the button below to get our free STEM Career guide.

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Topics: STEM