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Things You Need to Succeed in STEM

I've tried to share some advice with people on how to get better at solving problems, but they tend to just take it personally and get mad at me. They say I'm too critical, but I say they're not being critical enough. Perhaps it's better if I aim this at a general audience instead.

Get a Great Scientific Calculator

I can't count the number of people I've encountered taking a college-level science or math class that don't have a scientific calculator. When I ask them to calculate something, they just use the one provided on their cell phones, which is just pathetic. A cell phone only has basic operations, can only work with two numbers at a time, can't be used on tests, and can potentially distract you. Other people use calculators from brands that no one's heard of that take minutes to evaluate expressions. Evaluating these same expressions would only take me ten seconds using my own calculator. Which calculator do I recommend, then? I suggest this one for all its functions, its price, and because it has many physical constants programmed in. CASIO is a great brand, and as amazing as the first edition of that calculator is (which I've been using for more than 10 years) they still improved upon it by making a second edition. A lot of schools recommend or require that students get calculators from Texas Instruments, but this is an example of how schools don't prepare you for the real world. The graphing calculators by Texas Instruments are more limited in their capabilities compared to the following software programs: MATLAB, Mathematica, Maple, and Mathcad. Learning to use one of these programs instead will benefit you not only in school but after it as well, as they're far more powerful than hand-held calculators. I bought a TI-83 when I was a student, and I hated it for being bulky and heavy and having monochrome and pixelated graphics (like a Game Boy) and for only being able to graph one-dimensional functions that could be explicitly solved for y or r. It also barely fit in my pocket and constantly dragged my shorts down. How embarrassing.

Do Your Work on Blank 8.5"x11" or 11"x17" Paper

Pretty much every student uses hole-punched 8.5"x11" college-ruled paper to write on, but this is a mistake. This kind of paper is for writing essays, not for doing math; it's designed to fit a lot of text in straight lines. I think it's best that I show you an example so you can see why.


There are a number of problems with college-ruled paper, the first of which is that it makes work appear very crammed in. The college rules constrain the size of your writing, and it makes the distance between lines practically zero because most people write single-spaced. Another problem is that the size of the paper is just too small. Most people write within the margins, making the amount of space they have to work with effectively 7.5"x10". For example, a 2 can turn into a z, a + can turn into a t, among other things. When you're solving elementary problems, it takes maybe a few lines to solve a problem, and 7.5"x10" is sufficient. When you start solving complicated problems, the equations can get so long that 7.5" isn't enough, or there may be so many steps involved that 10" isn't enough. This is when you should start using bigger paper, namely 11"x17".


I suggest you write on this 8.5"x11" paper, and I suggest you write on this 11"x17" paper. There are no college rules, so your lines will be naturally sized and spaced apart. You'll also have space to draw diagrams if you need to. If you need your paper to be in a 3-ring binder, then use a hole puncher.

Use a New Paper for Each Problem

I just want to emphasize the point I made earlier: Give yourself space to work on a problem. Lots of people do multiple problems on a single piece of paper, which potentially leads to a lot of work crammed into a tiny space. As I said before, writing small makes it harder for you to see what you're doing, and also people tend to combine multiple steps per line when they're running out of space. Unless the problems you're solving are easy, do each problem on a separate piece of paper. If you run out of space, continue on another blank sheet and label the pages (Problem Z - 1/2) when you're done.

Use Pens Rather Than Pencils

Do not use pencils to solve problems with. When the lead breaks, it breaks your focus and you have to sharpen the pencil. Mechanical pencils are especially bad because the lead breaks more often than a regular pencil. Pencils are only useful for those multiple-choice exams that are filled out with Scantron forms. Pencils typically come with erasers, which make things messy. They shake the table you're working at, get eraser debris all over the place, and it makes your writing harder to read (see the college-ruled paper example above). Not only do pens slide along the paper more easily, but they last a really long time and don't need to be sharpened. The only downside to using them is that your writing can't be erased, but that's actually a good thing. I can't tell you how many times I solved a problem one way, thought it was incorrect, erased it, then realized I solved it correctly. If you ever think your work is incorrect, just draw a giant X through it. This way you can still read what you wrote in case you come back to it. I quite like these pens and recommend them. Assuming you don't give any away, they will last you a lifetime if not longer.

Have a Textbook For Each Class You Take

I encounter so many students that are taking a class who don't have a textbook. This advice might sound old-fashioned, but if you want to learn about something, read a book about it. Many put their eggs in one basket and rely only on the professor's lectures, which may or may not be clear. Always have a book to study from. Understandably, many textbooks are overpriced, but there are ways around high prices. You can get an earlier edition of the textbook that's cheaper, or you can get a similar book that has good reviews. Every author has strengths and weaknesses, depending on their specialty. As a result, different authors may explain different concepts better or worse than others. Don't assume that the textbook you're required to buy for a class is the best to learn from. Ask your professors and classmates and others online what they're reading and what books they recommend, taking into consideration reviews online.

Make Smarter Friends

Spend more time around the people you want to be like. If you want to become a smarter person, try and make friends with smarter people. The younger you are, the more your values will align with the people you're surrounded by. If you get an A on an exam, for example, you don't want to be around people that try to shame you or make fun of you for doing well. This can discourage you from doing the same in the future. Or it can encourage you; I guess it depends on your personality. If you're going to be in a relationship with someone, make sure your partner is someone that can and will give you space to focus when you need to.

Necessary Characteristics

When you're solving difficult problems, your curiosity, stubbornness, and grit are what will keep you grinding until you get an answer. Consistency is also very important to keep the problem-solving skills you try so hard to develop. People think that if they get an A in a class, they'll forever be masters at the material, but this couldn't be further from the truth, unfortunately. If you don't use your knowledge, you will forget it. Someone who builds a lot of muscle will lose it if he doesn't work out on a regular basis. Someone who learns a foreign language will forget words if he doesn't practice it regularly. It's no different for a person with expertise in anything, including mathematics, science, and engineering. My point is that if you finish a school year, keep practicing by doing problems on your own or by doing summer school. And whatever you do, do not get cocky. There are so many people that get an A on their first quiz. Then they bomb their first exam because they felt like they didn't have to study as hard. Be honest with yourself, and don't let an A fool you into thinking you're good at something when you really aren't.


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