Remembering the Quadratic Formula

Before I started my engineering program, I had never taken a college math class before. I liked math, loved math in fact. I took advanced placement calculus in high school and got seven advanced placement credits on my transcript when I went to college. Extra credits that, as it turns out, allowed me graduate in four years with fewer electives. But as a bright-eyed freshman planning to major in English, I was herded through the basic university math placement test, told I was (surprise!) proficient, and sent to pursue my artsy, english-y, writerly future. (I did not, as you’ve probably guessed, major in English.)

I had fond memories of my high school math classes. Aside from a brief stumble in seventh grade, during which time I was busy fantasizing about boys and got a B in algebra (the horror!), math came easily to me. I was thrilled when my sophomore geometry teacher recommended that I move up from standard math to honors math the following year. Because of this promotion, I was able to take calculus senior year. I found it fascinating.

I used to tell my dad, a chemical engineer and fellow math lover, how much I missed math after high school. I actually considered taking Calc 2 my freshman year of college just for fun, but I hated to waste time and tuition money on a class I didn’t need. So I marched on, eventually landing in the studio art program, the land of folks who, in general, dislike math – more on that in future posts. I still thought about math fondly, and hoped that one day I would have a reason to use it again.

A pythagorean theorem pumpkin I carved once for Halloween, proving the obvious – that math is fun!

A pythagorean theorem pumpkin I carved once for Halloween, proving the obvious – that math is fun!

I graduated with my BFA, became a graphic designer, and traveled further away from all things math. It had been so long since I’d done math of any kind I started to worry that I would forget how to do it. At one point I even picked up a calculus review book, hoping to dust off my math brain and do some problems “just because.” Nothing much came of that, since even a math lover, I realized, has trouble finding the motivation to do math problems unless she has a reason to do so.

Fast forward to the days and weeks after I got off the plane and started to piece together my plan for actually getting an engineering degree. The advisor at the engineering program where I will eventually earn my degree suggested I take my prerequisites at the local community college, so began looking into classes. My advanced placement test scores were more than ten years old, and the community college only counted test scores that had taken place in the previous two years. The only way to avoid taking a pile of algebra classes was to test into Calc 1, the highest level class I was allowed to test into. I would begin classes in the fall. I had three months.

I brushed off the calculus review book I’d bought years before and began to panic when I realized I didn’t understand any of it. I was a little…a lot…rusty. I swallowed my pride and headed to the book store to flip through some of the “math for dum dums”-style books. I ended up finding a set of books in the “Demystified” series that seemed clear and well-written. I flipped through the “PreCalculus Demystified” book and realized, no, I don’t really remember how to do any of this. I picked up “College Algebra Demystified” and flipped to the first few chapters. No…didn’t quite remember how to do those problems either. Thoroughly deflated, I picked up “Algebra Demystified.” This was ninth-grade algebra. The material I remembered how to do ended about halfway through the book. I stacked all three books into my arms and lugged them to the register.

I spent the next three months working my way through examples, practice problems and end-of-chapter “tests.” I will be forever indebted to Rhonda Huettenmueller, author of those three books. Her books were so helpful; I would recommend them to anyone. If I ever meet her in person, I will buy her a cake…and balloons…and a bottle of expensive wine. She helped me get my math groove back.

These books – gold.

These books: gold.

I had to register for fall classes before I was able to finish my review. The only necessary class I could take that didn’t require calculus was Chemistry. I was able to test into the appropriate level of algebra to enroll for that class, knowing I would have to finish my review and test into Calc 1 before I could enroll for spring classes. I was only allowed to take the math placement test twice per year. The next test would be my only chance.

I downloaded precalculus exam review packets from the college website and studied them tirelessly. When I finished the review, I went into the testing center to take my placement test. I was literally shaking as I clicked the final “submit” button after completing all the questions. The score appeared on the screen immediately. I did it.

Of course this would only be the first of many times that I would be tested. The first of many times that I would need to prove, as much to myself as to anyone else, that I could, and would, do it.

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2 thoughts on “Remembering the Quadratic Formula

  1. Great! I forgot that you had to go back to reviewing high school algebra. That makes me feel better, because I’ve forgotten everything as well, and I was extremely disappointed in myself. When I took the GRE a few years ago, my math review was very strenuous. I ended up doing alright, but I’ll keep in mind the “Demystified” books should I need to try my hand again. Congrats on getting back up to speed, and much more than that by now!

    • Oh don’t be disappointed in yourself! We lose skills so quickly if we don’t use them. Even since I’ve been back in school, if a semester or two goes by between when I learn something and when I have to apply it in another class, I go running for my notes and old textbooks. It’s so easy to forget. Luckily, once you realize you can get it back with a little study, you feel a bit less panicked when it happens.

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