As a political science major, my bachelor’s degree program at Valparaiso University included a set of distribution requirements covering basic liberal arts subjects. Among other things, I had to choose three mathematics and science courses, with at least one math offering among them. Heading into my senior year in the Fall of 1980, I had already managed to take a pair of science courses to cover two of the three, but the dreaded math course still loomed in front of me.
You see, I hadn’t taken any math courses since my junior year of high school, and I was happy to be done with them back then. Although I’ve tended to be a pretty good logical thinker, that aptitude or affinity has never quite extended to the field of mathematics. Indeed, I was a living exception to the stereotype about Asians and math.
And so I reviewed the math course listings in search of something palatable, or at least passable. At VU, they were numbered in the 100s, 200s, 300s, and so forth, to signify their relative level of complexity. But mixed in with the three-digit numbered courses was one offering, Math 14, a/k/a “Mathematical Ideas,” with a description free of scary terms like “proofs” or “calculus.”
With a sigh of relief, I enrolled in Math 14. In the class, I saw a few students I knew previously, including a fellow political science major or two. However, by far the most notable cohort was comprised of members of the VU football team. VU was refreshingly short on “rocks for jocks”-type courses, but this was an apparent exception.
Math 14 was taught by a friendly senior professor who actually cared about stoking some enthusiasm for the subject matter among we math-phobes. He also adopted a textbook equal to our skill sets; I can’t recall the exact title, but it was something like Mathematics for Everyday Life or close to it. And yup, inside the book were a lot of story problems.
Hey, I’m not meaning to brag here, but I kicked butt in that course. Our final project was to assemble a set of 3×5 index cards using hole punchers to simulate a simple digital computing function. (Keep in mind that the personal computer era was a few years away.) Boom, I pulled off that baby without a hitch! And thanks to my penchant for not throwing anything away, I can now proudly share a photo of that project above. (Go on, tell me this isn’t like gazing at the collegiate notebooks of a young Stephen Hawking.)
Despite this rousing success, I did not attempt to switch my major to math at that late juncture, tempted as I was to continue on this newfound path of excellence. Instead, I stuck with the political science major and would go on to law school, as I had planned. But at least my index card computer remains operational; some exhibitions of raw brilliance must endure.