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Programs Concerns about math in engineering

  1. Oct 5, 2016 #1
    First some background to explain my situation:
    I'm currently a high school junior in the US, and I want to pursue a career as a US Air Force officer via the Air Force Academy or, more likely, ROTC. I'll be applying for ROTC scholarships sometime next fall, and one of the criteria on the application is your intended major. This is pretty important; engineering majors get priority, hard science/tech majors come next, and non-technical majors are extremely unlikely to receive any scholarship money at all.

    For a few years I've been interested in studying aerospace engineering because aviation is a passion of mine and I already have a lot of background in it, and also because it's one of the top majors in terms of ROTC scholarship awards. But after taking Algebra II and starting Pre-calculus, I have some concerns about my math ability and whether or not I could really handle AE. I'm not horrible at math (mostly Bs in it), but nowhere near my abilities in other subjects. It's obvious through all my work and just discussing math with classmates that I don't really have any kind of talent for it. Theoretical math also bores me to tears; applied math is fine, but sitting through an hour-long lecture about the unit circle or whatever makes me want to jump out a window. AE, being notoriously math-heavy, is looking like less and less of a good idea.

    What I'm afraid of is going to college on an ROTC scholarship for AE, finding out that the math is just too much, letting my GPA slip below ROTC standards, and losing the scholarship.

    So, what are some other potential options for majors? Keep in mind that I want to stay within STEM for scholarship reasons. My main interests are in aerospace and in chemistry (which, as I understand, is slightly less math-intensive than engineering?). Or, maybe I'm just overreacting; can your average kid with Bs in high school math make it through AE with a reasonable GPA? (And not hate his life doing it?)
  2. jcsd
  3. Oct 5, 2016 #2


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    Okay, hang on... What kind of discussion could possibly give you this belief? Are your classmates all geniuses that we heave't heard about yet, or what?

    The unit circle is greatly underrated... mainly when people who don't actually know how it's applied lecture on it.

    I would not rule out engineering if that's what you're interested in, regardless of perceived math shortcomings.

    The oft quoted passage by Einstein reads thus: "Do not worry about your difficulties in Mathematics. I can assure you mine are still greater.” There's some controversy over what he meant, but I take it to mean that the feeling exists at all levels. :wink:
  4. Oct 6, 2016 #3


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    You're not going to find any STEM type degree that is math lite. Chemistry may actually more math intensive than AE, depending on the particular courses you take.

    Some good life advice? When you run into a problem (your math ability in this case) don't let your mind wonder around to trying to find ways around the problem(a different major), fix the problem! You still have time to seek tutoring, recieve feedback from your instructors, fix study habits, etc as it pertains to mathematics.
  5. Oct 6, 2016 #4
  6. Oct 6, 2016 #5
    Your aversion to math is a prejudice you need to get rid of.
  7. Oct 6, 2016 #6
    Your classmates have no way of assessing this accurately.

    Yep, I think it would make every person jump out of a window, even (or especially) theoretical mathematicians.
  8. Oct 6, 2016 #7


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    Math gets a lot more interesting and practical once you get into Calculus, IMO. I didn't start calculus until my freshman year of college, and my math skills improved a lot at college.
    I had similar concerns about my math skills until I got to college. I'd recommend that you hang in there, and do your best to try to improve at math. Work as many real-world math problems as you can, so you start enjoying solving math problems more. :smile:
  9. Oct 6, 2016 #8
    Thanks for the replies everyone. To clarify, what I meant by "It's obvious through all my work and just discussing math with classmates that I don't really have any kind of talent for it" was that there's a noticeable gap between my peers and myself in math. Like if I'm working through a problem with someone else, they'll always be one step ahead; and I'll always be the first to ask a stupid question in class that everyone else already knows the answer to. It's really frustrating, not to mention embarrassing. I remember one time in algebra II my class was divided into partners that had to answer problems on a small white board as fast as possible. I (un)lucky enough to be paired with a girl I liked...I made so many mistakes that she eventually got annoyed and said "could you just stop, okay?" Some anecdotal evidence for ya...

    I guess the thing to do, per berkeman's advice, would be to keep going and see how calc goes next year. I doubt the situation will change much, though, unless something just clicks for whatever reason. It's going to be very difficult, no doubt. It's exceedingly hard to sit down and voluntarily study something you really hate.
  10. Oct 6, 2016 #9


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    Do you hate it because you don't think you're good at it? Don't see the purpose behind it? I'm sure math never stole your girlfriend or lunch money. So why do you hate it?

    How much time do you spend practicing in your math courses?
  11. Oct 7, 2016 #10
    Great quote about the girlfriend or lunch money. LOL.

    My hatred of math was based in fear and the difficulty I experienced in math, especially algebra, trig, exponentials, and logs in high school.

    I was lazy, and I did not want to work as hard as I needed to for real mastery.

    When I got to college, it came to a head, because my lack of algebra skills was a real burden trying to learn calculus.

    I ended up working 15 hours a week outside of class to complete my calculus homework. I continued having to spend inordinate amounts of time on the math throughout college.

    When I got to grad school, I retook several undergrad physics courses and also worked tons of undergrad type problems in preparation for the PhD qualifying exam. It was here that I finally mastered algebra, trig, exponentials, and logs. Before then, I just barely survived. Had I worked maybe 1 hour per day outside of class in high school, it all would have been much easier. I suppose it was my penance for being a slacker in high school.
  12. Oct 7, 2016 #11
    Look, I failed Calculus among other classes multiple times trying to work through a physics degree; I've been where you are now multiple times, hell I still have the impostor syndrome as a working engineer where I constantly feel like the dumbest person in the room. I read loads and loads until I found material explained in such a way that it clicked for me and I stuck with that through my studies, always translating everything I read into such a format that it melded with how I understood things; eventually I earned a double major in physics and electrical engineering, and I now work in a national lab where I'm sometimes known as the theoretically minded and mathematical engineer; and I wanted to be a cartoonist out of college! Now I look back at Calculus and differential equations and such like and wonder why they were difficult to begin with; it can be done it just takes work and work ethic to transcribe the material from your professor in such a way that you understand it, look up the Feynman technique, example being:

    IMO, unless your a math or physics major most of the other STEM disciplines can be considered somewhat math lite, I don't count as having a bunch of formulas as math heavy; though notable exceptions are places in the majors you're interested in. Aerospace has fluid dynamics which is very vector calculus heavy and chemistry is in many ways applied quantum mechanics so that has lots of linear algebra and differential equations if you go the physical chemistry route. Don't let that intimidate you though, it's like learning another language and that takes practice. You don't need to know math at the level of a mathematician to do the work and make the calculations you need to in science or engineering. Best of luck.
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