Sunday, April 21, 2019

The Cowculator

What does a farmer use to add up his bulls? A Cowculator.  Ha!

Years ago when I was coaching a middle school math club, a student told me that joke. Hmmm… I had a cow suit from Halloweens past.  What else could I do?  With a decorated cape and matching Converse sneakers, I invented the lesser-known math superhero, the Cowculator.
The Cowculator made her debut to welcome 100+ Mathletes to the annual Eastern Idaho MATHCOUNTS competition a few years ago. I feel silly and whimsical in a cow suit, but as soon as the cape completes the transformation, I am unstoppable. There is no problem too difficult or discouraging for the Cowculator.

Hours after my foray at the microphone, I had a poignant exchange with a lanky, freckle-faced Mathlete, who reminded me of myself at that age. He fit the checklist of stereotypes. He was jittery and nervous as he spoke. His white socks emphasized his faded high-water jeans and grubby sneakers. Those sneakers likely never did anything athletic. I imagine he only combed his hair when someone reminded him and since he boarded a school bus at 5am, there was likely no one awake at his house to offer a reminder.
Propelled and disarmed by our mutual love of math, and likely by the cow suit and cape, this Mathlete zigzagged through the tables during lunch when he spotted me. He waved and yelled,
 “I know you’re the Cowculator!
I only wore the costume during my welcome address. I changed into a geek-sanctioned polo shirt and khakis while I coached my team. My tie-on cow hood left my full face visible, so I’m sure everyone in the ballroom knew I was the not-yet-famous superhero, but I played along.

 Oh? And how did you know that?

With a goofy-toothed grin and pizza sauce on the corners of his mouth, he pointed to my feet. 
Your shoes. “   
Ah yes. My sneakers gave me away.
I winked at him and told him that he would make a great detective someday. 

I know. I figure things out because I’m a problem child.

A handful of students that day had buttons with the slogan “Problem Child” pinned to their backpacks and jackets.  These kids think they are merely doing math, but they are learning how to solve problems. Answers may not come easily or quickly, but they come.  Solutions may be elusive, but they exist, and this world needs all the problem-solvers we can get.
Today, the Cowculator is part of the team to welcome students to my company's facility for field trips and tours.  Wearing a cow suit and cape to work is a blast, but the Cowculator seeks to serve a critical role in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) outreach.  The technical concepts and professional environment can be intimidating or daunting. With humor and puns aplenty, the Cowculator works to connect with students to demystify conceptions about careers in STEM.

The Cowculator doesn’t help students solve their problems, but rather she’s all about empowering them. Puzzles and problems can be “udderly” fun when it’s in the process. The challenge.  The work. With a little grit mixed into instruction, kids can become their own personal problem solvers with no need for a Cowculator.  They can be their own superhero—with or without a cape.

At a Supergirl STEM Conference
About to read a children's book on Engineering to 1st graders