Hidden Lessons in Differential Equations

differential equationsUnless you love math you probably went “Huh?” Not to worry. There won’t be a test.

This is like an Aesop’s Fable without the cute animals but including a balding professor and a lesson to be learned at the end.

I started out my freshman year of college as an Electrical Engineering student at NCSU.

Whoa! You probably thought you were at Mitch Allen’s Morpho Designs and had to take a second look because this is way more up his alley. I’ll wait while the shock wears off……….ready?…ok

It took me about 3 months to learn:

  1. I hated electrical circuits and would rather eat nails than do this the rest of my life.
  2. Drafting was fun only because of the cool tools, and I felt like Mr. Brady looking over architecture plans on the drafting table. (Explains the stick figures?…maybe)
  3. It’s possible to have a 7 average in a class and not be a star athlete (It was the notorious Chris Washburn years).
  4. Blowing up resistors and capacitors at amazing speed and quantity in lab is frowned upon.
  5. When it comes to picking lab partners, skill outweighs the novelty of being the only female in a room of geeks, so no one wanted to be my lab partner. (Due to #4)
  6. I needed to switch majors…ASAP.

Economics/Business Management with emphasis in Computer Science and Marketing here I come! Phew!

However I loved math! Despite the fact that I could have easily finished my math credits in business math, I chose to stick it out and finish the Engineering math route instead – which brings me to my final math class and the hardest class I ever took…Differential Equations.

The population of female engineering students from my perspective was…one. Me. I never had another girl in any core classes. So it was no surprise to walk into the tiny 20 desk room for Differential Equations class and discover I was the only one…again.

My teacher was a stereotypical math teacher that resembled an even geekier version of Dwight from the office but with no hair.

Dwight Schrute who I adore! Mr. D. E. Professor who I did not adore.
Dwight Schrute who I adore meet Mr. D. E. Professor who I do not.

After three weeks I was so lost and confused in the class that I resorted to a road trip across town for some tutoring from Dad, the genius that doesn’t forget a thing. He taught me a different method, and we discussed how horrible the book was.

Long story short, I went to my professor’s office to have a chat. This was the first and last time I ever met with a professor in my college career. For fifteen minutes I went on and on and on about the trouble I was having, how I learned a better method, and how useless the book was.

The rest of the semester I was a target in his class. Three times a week at 7:20am, I would sleepily plop into my seat in the front row and receive the usual sarcastic “Welcome, Melinda. So glad you could join us today,” from the professor. Constantly picked to solve equations on the board and always singled out as being the only “business major” with a “what are you doing here?” attitude, I put up with being the class outcast.

Remember the feeling when a semester is over and you can’t wait to run to the used book store and sell back the $150 textbook for $50? Money! A rare college treat!

The Revelation

Standing in line dreaming about spending the money on a delicious pizza, I all of the sudden looked at my textbook as if seeing it for the very first time. All those nights pouring over the inside chapters of maddening math problems, and I never once read the cover which said:

Differential Equations by D.E. Professor.

Moral: BEFORE ranting about how horrible and useless a book is for fifteen minutes, check the author. Especially if your grade depends on it.

OK there is a test…or more of a joke

What did the mathematician say after Thanksgiving dinner?

Hint: sqrt(-1/64)

Courtesy of my genius son who found this hysterical at 12:30am while my brain was spinning. This one is for you Mitch!


  1. i/8 – I over ate! Brilliant.
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  2. Hi Melinda

    That was very nasty of him….and glad you were able to stick it out and that probably annoyed him more than anything else, you sitting in his lecture as a constant reminder of his boring book πŸ˜‰

    I always knew you were a geek, and this post has confirmed it. I am so NOT and most of this post went over my head LOL Mitch will enjoy it though and all the other super-geeks that populate cyberspace.

    As you know I call you all geniuses as it is all a mystery to me! But you are such a gifted writer too Melinda so you are one talented lady. Now about those lavenders……??!! πŸ™‚

    Patricia Perth Australia
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    • Ugh..ummm…the lavenders…are waiting for weeding. *changes subject by pointing to a tree*. Lol I guess I deserved it after my 15 minute speech. I really had no idea until I stood in that line and had a “ah ha” moment that made me smile. He was pretty hateful to start. You are right he probably had a vein in his head pulsing everytime he saw me. That’s what happens when I decide to speak up for once ha ha!!

  3. Melinda, you are officially my number one super-geek! Thanks so much for thinking of me as you wrote this. I was holding in the laughter, only because everyone is still asleep! I wanted to howl when you talked of blowing up capacitors. And unknowingly dissing the hell out of your professor. OMG. {tears streaming down face}

    Math professors are sensitive types, for sure.

    It is interesting to hear this story. I had the same problem with the calculus. I turned to my genius buddy George who tried his best to make me understand how easy it all was. Sadly, I never got the hang of it.

    I think the world is a better place with you in it as a creative nerd-chic! πŸ˜‰


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    • Hold on…adding nerd-chic to my resume description now that it is official. I had wishfully added it in pencil…now it’s in pen.

      I had 2 very good friends from high school in circuits with me and despite their best efforts they could not tutor me. Yes Calculus wasn’t my favorite either. I realized EE majors should only include people who have previously built their own radio from scratch in high school and not people who have only used the elementary color coded Radio Shack circuits kit and successfully wired a working doorbell. This is misleading when it comes to actual skill. πŸ™‚ I always read those colored lines on resistors backwards. They should have charge me a higher lab fee since I always ended up with a pile of unusable parts in front of me. I probably went back to my dorm with my pockets full trying to hide the evidence.

      • Hold Up! you actually got a Radio Shack project to WORK? LOL
        Heck, I was only ever able to build a stupid battery recharge. Duh. Really complex.

        My love of math spilled over into / from a fascination with electronic gadgets. I was fine with the OHM thingies red, black, yellow and all that. Instead of baseball cards, I collected weird combinations of resistors and even those blue capacitors from radios. (I didn’t qualify for EE major under your rules, because I only destroyed radioes).

        I did consider a future in electronics…until I picked up a transistor. To this day, I can NOT wrap my head around little digital switches based on chemical sandwiches.

        When I found out that ICs were just denuded transistors, crammed together like little electronic sardines, I gave up and learned Dartmouth BASIC instead.



        p.s. Over the years, though, I never stopped reading and enjoying the developments in electronics. So, when the new-fangled transistors debuted, I just smile and said, “That’s nice.”
        Mitchell Allen recently posted..Zeppole PeoplezMy Profile

        • I’m talking the basic kit that was available when we were little with plastic parts that were color coded. My Dad got my son the new complicated version that requires an EE degree and a glass of wine and is impossible. It has real parts and gave me a horrible flashback and even my own son didnt want to partner with me. I couldn’t do experiment #1 so that’s reserved for grandpa visits only and people who think that is fun not torture. πŸ™‚ All the knowledge I had was immediately erased from my brain the second I switched majors. Brain reformat.

  4. The problem with calculus and any higher-level course is that usually the person teaching it can’t remember what it was like not to understand the subject. All the more reason that person shouldn’t be writing the textbook.

    Great post, Melinda!
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    • That is possible only I believe he was just flat out teaching it wrong. How many editors could proof a Differential Equations book? Don’t you think they just played some Atari and approved at the end of the day?

  5. Math hater here … πŸ™‚

    You actually got $50 back from the used bookstore on a $150 book??! You did great. Most of the (useless — hardly ever opened) textbooks my twins purchase for their college courses can’t even be given away for free! Why? Because their professors switch to a different textbook for the next group coming in. I’m a single mom with four daughters and you should see the beautiful collection of (good for nothing) college textbooks I have!

    Here’s one I bet you’ll enjoy …

    My daughter purchased a (ridiculously high-priced) calculus textbook for this semester. All the homework problems are in the book. Great, right? NOT. The professor is smarter than most. He created a software program where he put all the problems in a different order so his students then HAVE TO BUY the software in order to do the right problems in the right order or no credit is given. Where does this kind of B.S. end? Pretty clever way to turn a buck, don’t ya think?

    Another great post, Melinda!
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    • That is just evil. I can’t imagine how much textbooks cost now. You are right, most of the time you couldn’t sell them back because they were already using the next edition.

  6. So… our closet super-hero develops an interesting new layer: Math whiz. Look out X-Men, Melinda may be submitting her application once she’s past the sock monkey creation phase of life.

    Many thanks to Chris – I would never have gotten the answer. I was/am good at geometery anything beyond that might as well be written in Chinese. Good joke. I’ll send it on to a Mensa friend of mine. He oughht to get it; he too plays with math for amusement.

    Thanks for sharing this fascinating new layer Melinda!
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  7. I had the worst calculus prof in college. Up until then, I was a great math student. To this day, I have no idea what calculus is.

    By the way, which part of the world are you living in that lavendar grows on trees? πŸ˜‰
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  8. I’m starting to think those pictures you draw are complex math equations that just look like stick figures to those of us who are mathematically challenged. It took me 3 attempts to pass college algebra. That was the only math class I needed to graduate and the only one I took. I probably should be embarrassed by that, but the truth is that my math skills are so poor, I’m proud that I passed! When I was in elementary school, I skipped two grades and most of the time I was in an independent study program. The lady supervising me didn’t care that I didn’t want to do math, so we rarely did. Seriously, I went to high school not knowing basic multiplication and division. I still don’t know how to do long division with numbers, let alone those funky looking letters. My motto for all grade school students is stay in school! Haha! Fun article, Melinda. This is why all authors should have their picture on the book πŸ˜‰
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  9. Your post’s title made my brain hurt. While I used to be great in math things started to change when I hit fourth grade. Working with any symbol that doesn’t just simply add, subtract, multiple or divide puts me in a self-induced coma. Slapping some variables and numbers inside some squiggly lines so that we can find out the qualataritic square equivalent of negative pi squared will never solve anything for me. If I’m ever in a situation where my life depends on a square root symbol, I’ll call someone. But I’m not going to clog my brain with formulas I might possibly one day need if I ever find myself hurdling towards earth on an errant space shuttle with only a 4×4 window of entry.
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    • I’m going to have to assume you are on the space shuttle as a stowaway or you bought a ride with your new found riches. Can’t you phone-a-friend? I think that’s a valid option, and everyone should have the cell number of a mathematical genius in case of emergencies such as this. I can return the favor by supplying useless information like the phone number to Papa John’s Pizza, how to get space food unstuck from a hairbrush, or how to upload a picture of the Earth to Facebook. I’ll even throw in “liking” it.

  10. Hi Melinda,
    I sure wouldn’t like to experience what you had that time. Being always the only female in a class is one thing, but having a professor that also always picks on you is another. But I guess maybe he knew that you know he was the author of the book, and you still said it was a useless thing – so I guess every time he saw you, it reminds him what you think about his book – which no one dared say anything bad about it before. Cheers to you Melinda, for enduring those hard times!
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  11. I am so impressed!!! I don’t like math. I took the hard classes in high school, but still hated it. I didn’t say I made A’s in it either. Ew. I would rather eat nails. You know, nails aren’t that bad. With ketchup? Mmmmm….

  12. I totally understand where you’re coming from… I’m a chemical engineering student and I just finished DiffEq last summer… it was a horrible brain wrenching black hole from which I’m surprised anyone came out alive.

  13. great surprise ending Melinda! In school, I once gave a presentation that took a position that I learned much to late was the exact opposite of what the professor did his dissertation on.

    Too bad your math teacher could not imagine all the ways DQs can be used in other disciplines like business and I’m sure some the study of rate of change and time has inspired some of the greatest minds to produce some of the best daydreams and doodles in the history of the world.

    Glad you got such a great response too. My attempt to post about logarithms and creativity keep people away by a factor of 10. I guess math can be very funny that way.
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    • Ha ha. Was the profesdor cringing during your presentation? I was a bit nervous writing about math but lesson wasn’t math dependent. πŸ™‚ My son was thrilled his joke got used as he still thinks it is funny. I spared everyone the more complicated ones that caused some brain cell sprains. Professors should point out certain facts on day one to keep one from sticking their foot in their mouth.

  14. First, that’s hilarious. Second…I looked at your little math equation at the end and thought, “I really hope somebody posts the answer as a comment. Am I supposed to know that?????” I was a History major. I took “Math for Liberal Arts Majors”…that really does exist. We learned the Roman Numeral system….whoo!

  15. LOL very humorous post on college life!
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  16. I love this story! I think everyone has the teacher horror story. Sounds like he was a jerk even before you insulted his book. I have never been the position where I was the only girl in a class like you, my college classes were all girls for all but 2 weeks when we had a single guy. I never did find out what happened to him….

    I’m so glad that someone posted the answer to your joke because I completely fail at math. I did art and design in school. So all I know is making things look pretty.
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  17. Marianne says:

    This story always makes me chuckle! Especially when I noticed my profesor was a contributor to my current Toxicology textbook. After your experience, that’s one of the first things I look at.

    As a total math geek, I used to do math doodles during my history classes. I’d try coming up with equations for interesting number patterns. For example, … LOL Don’t worry, I won’t go on ;>

  18. oh dear, I knew the answer to that joke. 1 slice of geek pizza please!

    poor you though, what a shame to get singled out all the time.

    next time you should judge a professor by his book, or um, judge a book by it’s author or, um, never mind!

    • Ha ha. My kids will never make this mistake thanks to hearing this 34 times. I’ll be calling them each semester to say “Don’t forget to check the author.”

  19. Well, I really admire girls who love math especially calculus and advance math courses. I think they are sexy.

  20. πŸ™‚

  21. When I was in college, I love Math subject actually but I was then hated it because our professor that time don’t know what he’s teaching about. He always allow us to write and write numbers, solving problem without even explanations about that certain problem. Until now Melinda I still hate Math, but my kids are very opposite with me they love Math actually and I’m happy for that. Your story seems similar to mine, thanks for this!
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  22. That’s a horrible experience in college life. I actually love Mathematics before but I hate numbers, sounds weird right? lol. Thanks for sharing your great experiences in Math.

    More Blessings!
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  23. Ok, now I just feel stupid. Seriously, there was a time I would actually have understood all of this. NOT that I was a math whiz, my dad however was a math teacher, I had a good ability for logic.

    With you puzzle at the end, I had to rely on common sense rather than knowing what the answer was. I have NO clue how I could explain how to solve it. Though it has been almost 15 years since I was in a class room. Geez, I am old πŸ™