Girls and Math

Act I:

In one of our department meetings near the start of the year, we started talking about the representation of girls in our math club and our math team. In years past, there was a higher representation than this year. And although I suspect that the distribution of boys/girls in our math classes are probably relatively even — based on my own anecdotal evidence — I will readily admit that in all years past, there were fewer girls than boys in math club and on our math team.

We as a department brainstormed different possible reasons. One teacher (it may have been me? maybe not though) said we could just ask students. But we agreed that this is something we should be cognizant of. And we all agreed that by reaching out individually, we as teachers might be able to make a difference. So we all committed to doing so.

And so I did. I emailed the girls in one of my classes.

Hi [Stus],

I wanted to send y’all a personal invitation. Among y’all, I see a large amount of mathematical curiosity and intellectual firepower. I can say with complete honesty that each of you have different qualities that are important in doing mathematics, and you all have impressed me thus far. Some of these qualities include dedication and the ability to work through initial frustration, the ability to math intellectual leaps/discoveries/connections, and the ability to express abstract conceptual ideas in written form.
I strongly believe that mathematics is not and should not be seen as a “boys club.” Among the students who I look back over my teaching career and think “wow, they were original and deep thinkers,” the majority of them are girls. Which is why I was surprised to see how few girls are involved in our math club and our math team this year. I want to encourage and nurture mathematical talent in girls in your generation so that future generations can see more women role models. And for me, that starts with me reaching out to you.
I wanted to give you a special and personal push/nudge in case you were interested in joining either math club or math team to talk with me so I can tell you more about these activities. (And if you’re not interested — which is totally fine, this email comes with no pressure– I’d also love to hear why you might not be interested in joining them. That would help me understand things better so I can think more broadly about things.)
Always,
Mr. Shah
It didn’t really work. The two replies I got were from students who were interested. But their schedules seemed to preclude their participation.
Act II:
I was alerted to an essay contest run by the Association for Women in Mathematics that I thought I could entice some students in my class to participate in. I threw this opportunity in Google Classroom, but … nothing. (As I write this post, it inspired me to re-post the opportunity since the deadline has not yet passed!)

Hi all,

The Association for Women in Mathematics (AWM) has an essay contest. You can interview a woman who is a mathematician or in a mathematical sciences career, and write a 500 to 1000 word essay based on that. And if you need help, AWM will even help you find someone to interview! More information is provided at the link below (along with some winning essays from previous years). From my reading of this website, this opportunity is open to everyone — not just women. If you are at all interested in hearing what a mathematician does (or what higher level math actually is!), or how gender plays a role in a mathematical career, this could be an amazing opportunity for you to find out.

https://sites.google.com/site/awmmath/programs/essay-contest

Later in this year, you will be doing a set of “mini math explorations” based on your interests. They are very open-ended. If you do end up doing this essay, which would be so awesome, it would count as two of these mini math explorations!

Always,
Mr. Shah

Act III:
Over winter break, I saw the film Hidden Figures, about black women mathematicians who helped put a man into space. I had quibbles with this and that about the movie, but my final judgment: I want all my kids to see this.
And then this week, I had an idea. I posted this on our google classroom site:

In case you haven’t heard about the movie _Hidden Figures_, I wanted to make you aware of it. I saw it over winter break and wanted to recommend it to all y’all! Check the trailer out:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5wfrDhgUMGI

I was thinking about reading the book it’s based on [https://www.amazon.com/Hidden-Figures-American-Untold-Mathematicians/dp/006236359X] sometime in the 2nd semester. If there are three or more of you that want to read it at the same time and have an informal book club around it, with me, I’m totally down. Just let me know who you are and we can make a plan!

Always,
Mr. Shah

And… I got a bite.Two actually. One student emailed me saying she was interested in joining the book club. And she told me that another student in our class was also interested! I asked ’em if they knew of any others — in our class or outside of our class — who might be interested. They got back to me with some names, and they agreed to reach out to them.

So it looks like we’re going to be having a book club around a book that talks about gender, race, and mathematics! I don’t know if it will be large or small. But I’m psyched that it will happen. This story was going around twitter today, and it made me emotional. Because I saw the relevance between this post which I have been working on, and this story.

 

starfish
Act IV:
One student in my class received a book called Math Girls as a present from another student in my class. Yes, my heart skipped a beat. Because how deliciously geeky was this gift exchange?! I have a project called Explore Math which allows kids to investigate something they are interested in that is related to math. The student who received the book wanted to meet with me to see if reading this book could be her exploration for the project. That particular book would have been too much to bite off for the mini-exploration, but I gave her a different but similar book (by the same author) to read for the exploration, and told her that when she had the time, I would help her work through Math Girls.
Epilogue:
Also making the rounds twitter tonight was a keynote address from the president of the Mathematical Association of America. He gave this talk two days ago. The purpose of the talk: Why do mathematics? And as I read, and continued to read, I welled up with emotion. There’s a lot there to unpack. He has a call to action for college professors.

Find one student and be their advocate!  Be the one who says “I see you, and I think you have a future in math.”  Be the one who searches out opportunities for them.  Be the one who pushes them towards virtue.  Be the one who calls them up when they’ve skipped class, and asks “is everything okay? what are you going through?”

I know what I’m asking you to do is hard and takes time. 

But we’re mathematicians… we know how to tackle hard problems.  We have the perseverance to see it through.  We have the humility to admit when we mistakes, and learn from them.  We have hopefulness that our labor is never in vain and that our work will bear fruit in the flourishing of our students.

Because what I am asking you to do is something you already know, at the heart of the teacher-student relationship, pushes us towards virtue.  I’m asking you to love.

But this call to action applies to us math teachers too, not just college professors. Except we don’t get to find one student. We are given many students. And being all of their advocates is harder, and takes time. And is Herculean. Perhaps Sisyphean. But people like Fawn and Rebecka and Annie and Sara remind us that gaining a deep student-teacher relationship with our kids–  having our connection go beyond math and to a position of mentor and trusted ally — is possible. Someone our kids can look up to, as a human being, not just as a font of knowledge. I have a suspicion that figuring this out separates us mere mortals from the master teachers we look up to.

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8 comments

  1. Hi Sam,

    Physics experiences a similar gendered ratio problem. I read a research paper over the holiday break about interventions which can drastically reduce this imbalance. It can be found here: https://web.stanford.edu/group/design_education/wikiupload/a/ab/Aguilar.pdf

    In it, one of the examples given is a professor email which is sent exclusively to the minority group, in hopes to encourage them. This can actually have a back-firing negative effect (counter-intuitively) because it reinforces pre-existing anxiety over already being an out-group (of not belonging), as members of the minority group are receiving emails when no one else is. Check it out, it’s a thought-provoking read!

  2. I just wanted to say that I not only enjoy reading your blog for the great teaching ideas but also because I resonate with the heart that you have for your students. Thanks for taking the time to blog.

  3. Hello,

    I am a female math teacher and recently viewed the TED talk titled
    Teach girls bravery, not perfection .

    The talk focuses on the lack of females in programming but I believe her ideas are dead on for all of the sciences.

    Worth watching if you have not seen it.

  4. Luckily, girls to guys ratio in our first year statistics course is pretty much equal. Even after a lot dropped out, the girls slightly outnumber the guys now!

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