The Math Guru: Vanessa Vakharia on giving math a makeover

Photo Credit: Racheal McCaig

Photo Credit: Racheal McCaig

#movethedial sat down with Vanessa Vakharia in The Math Guru - her boutique math and science tutoring studio – to talk pop culture, pre-conceptions, and study pop-ups.

Vanessa used to hate math. After failing Grade 11 math twice she thought that because she was “super-artsy” math simply wasn’t for her. However, a teacher in a new school moved the dial for Vanessa by showing her there is no such thing as a “math person.”

Once Vanessa overcame the notion that you could only be one thing, it turned out she loved math and was actually quite good at it.

Flashforward to today and Vanessa is moving the dial for others with her mission to give math a makeover. To get young people interested in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) some focus on roles models or making the subjects relevant but Vanessa has a different approach.

“My main thing is completely making over pop culture because it probably has the biggest influence on kids and teenagers lives.”

Photo Credit: Wesley Albert

Photo Credit: Wesley Albert

In an effort to change what teenagers thought of when they pictured math and education, Vanessa set up XAM a “super-cool, boho chic lounge” study pop-up last April. “Pop-ups are so trendy now in the world of fashion and lifestyle so I decided to do the same thing but with education,” she explains.  

With line-ups out the door for a month, it’s clear there is a hunger for transforming education environments so it looks like the types of things that young people like. “This is such a small example but I really believe we could be doing this on a wider scale but we aren’t thinking creatively,” Vanessa shares.

Math Guru Study Lounge (Photo Credit: Wesley Albert)

Math Guru Study Lounge (Photo Credit: Wesley Albert)

What is a “math person”?

Even though Vanessa realized in High School that there is no such thing as a “math person”, she still finds herself being pigeon-holed when she tells people about her work.

“I’m in a rock band so it happens all the time. I’ll get off stage and someone will ask me about my job and I’ll tell them I’m a Math teacher. Then they’ll say: “That’s CRAZY - you don’t look like a Math teacher” and I think what does that mean?”

For Vanessa, the stereotypes are immediately obvious when you look at the media and pop culture.

Representation in the Media

Vanessa’s university thesis, deeply studied pop culture and the effect it has on whether women view themselves as intelligent or not. “In the media, we almost make it not sexy for women to be smart.” She asks: “How many movies are there where the cheerleader is smart?”

It’s hard as a young person, or even an older person, when you’re trying to form your sense of self and you’re looking around you for examples. When you don’t see people who are both, you just think that it’s not a thing.

Since writing her thesis and becoming a math guru and math anxiety expert, Vanessa has featured in many media outlets and spoken at conferences and events. The more she talks about issues in pop culture and the media, the more she realizes there are so many people who are excluded by media stereotypes, not just women.

“I think STEM fields, in general, are really lacking a diversity of thought, and that goes for a lot of guys that don’t fit the traditional mould of what it means to be a scientist or mathematician.”

“We should all be looking at media around us and what it tells us about what we’re supposed to be, how we can fight that and how can we be allies for people who are being pigeon-holed,” Vanessa says.

Girls belong in STEM.

Vanessa believes that we are focusing too much on making STEM relevant and showing girls it’s for them instead of changing the way STEM looks to young people.

“There are really cool initiatives on social media like #ScientistsWhoSelfie. I think it’s about showing kids that multi-faceted people also do STEM.”

We need to give them more examples that a 16-year-old can relate to.

With such fierce competition from the music and entertainment world for the attention of teenagers, Vanessa says we need to fight for their admiration. “Marketing, PR and celebrity culture is where we should be and I don’t think we’re doing that yet,” she advises.

What next?

In addition to her plans to tour with her band (and take over the world with some hit singles) Vanessa is brimming with energy as she talks about always having a million things going on.

Having recently published her book Math Hacks, she is interested in writing more. Things are looking good for The Math Guru too with more space and more tutors hired!

“I want to find more powerful ways to spread the message to a wider audience,” says Vanessa.

By: Róisín Nestor