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What Is Math Anxiety?

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Do you panic when you have to calculate a tip? Did you ever feel like your mind went blank when confronted with a test in math class, in spite of having spent a week on the material? Do you avoid math as much as possible now?

You may have math anxiety.

And you’re not alone. While no one seems to be able to agree how many people have it—some estimate it affects 25 percent of university students and 80 percent of community college students—and the American Psychological Association doesn’t recognize math anxiety as a specific disorder in The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders, it can start as early as elementary school, and affects all ages, genders, ethnic, and socioeconomic groups.

It also happens worldwide, though some cultures report less math anxiety than others.

When you consider how much of our technology and global economy rely on numbers, math anxiety is an obstacle that hampers the population’s overall numeracy, making many unable to keep up.

Mental_floss spoke with several math education experts about the impact of math anxiety—and tools for addressing it.

“I do think math anxiety makes it a bit harder to be numerate,” says Temple University math professor John Allen Paulos, author of Innumeracy: Mathematical Illiteracy and its Consequences. “Math anxious people often just turn off, shrug, or roll their eyes when anything mathematical is mentioned.”

The term “math anxiety” has been around since the early ‘70s, as Sheila Tobias, then provost of Wesleyan University, wrote in 1978 in Overcoming Math Anxiety. Considered one of the seminal tomes on the subject, the book was aimed at individuals, particularly women, who had given up on math, “not because of a failure of intellect, but a failure of nerve.”

And while the psychology establishment may not be ready to commit to a diagnosis, psychologists have done quite a few studies. For example, Sian Beilock, a psychology professor at the University of Chicago, has confirmed Tobias’s assertion that math anxiety can affect math performance, even though the individual is perfectly capable of learning it: “A growing body of work shows that math anxiety robs people of working memory,” Beilock and cognitive psychologist Daniel Willingham wrote in a 2014 article in The American Educator [PDF].

It may also equal injury—Beilock and some colleagues did an imaging study that showed that the pain centers of the brain light up when someone is having math anxiety.

The good news is that, in the last decade, math anxiety has become a hot topic, and mathematicians and math educators are eager to help students overcome it.

“The Mathematical Association of America supports resources for reducing anxiety and encouraging healthy engagement with math lessons to help students become better problem solvers in their adult lives, even if they do not go into a mathematical career,” says MAA executive director Michael Pearson.

The MAA has tips for math anxious students and their teachers:

  1. Two heads are better than one. Students who work on math problems together can exchange ideas, ask questions, and gain confidence in their skills.
  2. Create a safe space to learn from mistakes. Teachers should emphasize that it is normal to make mistakes and help students work through them to get the right answer.
  3. Make it matter. Students work harder when they understand the goal of the project.
  4. Put the anxiety to use. When they were told that a rapid heartbeat or other symptoms associated with anxiety would actually help them, students did better.
  5. Take a deep breath. Use common relaxation techniques to help combat stress at test time.

But in order to really reduce math anxiety in our culture, educators will have to go further, says Minnesota-based math educator and author Christopher Danielson, who has written several books aimed at parents who want their children to be numerate, including Which One Doesn’t Belong and Common Core Math for Parents for Dummies.

“We need to understand that anxiety is a response to an environment, not a platonic thing that exists on its own,” Danielson says.

While not everyone is anxious about math, a prevailing attitude in Western societies is that math is not necessary for everyone, and only geniuses can truly understand it. Furthermore, who is most likely to be recognized as a genius is often defined by gender (male). It is not surprising, then, that women are more likely to report having math anxiety than men.

This is bad news when that woman also happens to be an elementary school teacher. A 2010 study by Beilock and her team showed that not only did anxiety hamper the teacher’s performance, it tended to infect her female students.

Math anxious parents can also make their children fear math. “This, of all things, begins at home,” Danielson says.

Pearson agrees. “For parents, keep a positive attitude towards math to prevent math anxiety from ever becoming an issue for your student. Avoid using terms or phrases that could foster negative feelings about math. Phrases like ‘Oh, I never was good at math myself’ can send a message to students that there is something to fear about math when in reality, math drives innovation and shapes our lives.”

Hopefully, this awareness will help the next generation be less math anxious. For those already dealing with it, remember: It’s never too late to try again. Start by acing that tip calculation at lunch.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]