Confessions of a STEM Girl

by Stacy McAnulty

Photo credit: Russ Rohde, Cultura Collection/Getty Images

Technically, I’m the E in STEM. My degree is in mechanical engineering, and before becoming a full-time writer, I worked in the automotive and aerospace industries. But my first STEM love was M. Can I get a hip-hip-array for MATH?

In my debut middle grade novel, The Miscalculations of Lightning Girl, the main character Lucy is a 12-year-old math genius and an all-around numbers nerd. And I mean this as the highest compliment. She is not me. I am not a genius. But I am a STEM girl and have been since stem was only part of a plant and not a career path.

Here’s what being a “STEM girl” has meant for me:

I Don’t Always Fit In

Lucy doesn’t fit in because of her math prowess and the issues that accompany her savant syndrome, but everyone has feelings of not belonging at some time. I sure did as a kid and still occasionally do as an adult. For example, I’ve participated in numerous author panels where we joyfully talk about books, reading, and writing. When the discussion turns to our childhoods, the other authors tell stories about their lifelong love of literature. I devoured everything I could get my hands on. I spent hours in the library. Books were my only friends. I started sneak-reading my mom’s Stephen King books at age eight. When the mic is moved in front of me, my knees shake because I’m going to give the “wrong” answer — I didn’t like reading as a kid. I liked … math.

Good at Math, Bad at English

I hate to reinforce the stereotype, but it was true for me. In the middle of fourth grade, I started at a new school where we had silent reading after recess. My first assigned book was How to Eat Fried Worms. (I honestly have no memories of reading any novels at my prior school. None!) I could not read this book. I didn’t have the skills. So instead, I would count the words then turned the page, thinking my teacher would never notice that I was faking it.

When this new teacher taught math, I sat up straight, paid attention, and raised my hand. When the subject was reading, writing, or, heaven forbid, spelling, I sank so low in my chair that my eyebrows would be in line with the desk. By middle school, I gained the unofficial label: good at math, bad at English.

Please Give Me Math Homework

From elementary school through college, I secretly hoped teachers would assign math homework. I didn’t go to Lucy’s extreme and seek out other students’ homework when I had none. But working out problems was fun, and I could do it while listening to Duran Duran or watching “DuckTales,” “General Hospital,” or “Oprah.” (I was diverse and prolific in my TV watching.) On the other hand, reading or memorization assignments required my complete concentration. That was hard work! Now, as a mom of three (nice prime number, right?), when my kids shout, “I need help with my homework!” I still secretly hope that they pull out an algebra worksheet.

Math Made Me a Winner

My mom used to buy a weekly lottery ticket — not scratch-offs but the kind where you picked the numbers and hoped to match them with the Ping-Pong balls. Her numbers corresponded to family birthdays and after months (maybe years) of playing, she got frustrated. “It’s always the same numbers, and they’re never mine!” So we began tracking lottery numbers together. We didn’t have the Internet or spreadsheets. We got the numbers from the newspaper and wrote them in a graph paper notebook.  This was my introductory lesson to statistics. Then, in October of 1991, my mom finally hit the big —  kidding! We never won.

Lucy tracks numbers, too — not lottery numbers but other data, like the adoption rates of dogs at an animal shelter. Math nerds enjoy seeing the numbers around them add up. It’s like unlocking the mysteries of our world.

Not a Human Calculator

Lucy is a human calculator; I am not. I pull out my phone and use the calculator app all the time, especially when I was writing The Miscalculations of Lightning Girl. You don’t have to be a genius to love math. Just like you don’t have to be a skilled painter to enjoy Van Gogh’s “Starry Night”!

Now a STEMB Girl

It took me a while to fall in love with books. (It was 12th grade, but I’ll save that story for another post.) I haven’t forfeited my E or my M; I’ve just added a B. Lucy is a girl who is more comfortable with numbers than words, and plenty of kids can relate. In middle grade novels, it’s common to find characters who love books because that’s many authors’ experience. (Write what you know!) I wanted to create a story for kids who think numbers are fascinating and would rather do math homework than 20 minutes of reading.

And, if I’m really lucky, it’s a book that will give a non-STEM person a glimpse of math’s beauty. The Miscalculations of Lightning Girl is my love letter to math and to STEM kids everywhere.