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Math Class: Why Aren't Girls Getting the Same Support As Boys?

Solving for XX in the word of mathematics

Rebecca Hill

Published on: December 28, 2016

girl interested in math

Editor’s note: Science, technology, robotics, engineering, art and math: In our schools and communities, there is more demand than ever for STREAM. Yet only about a third of eighth-graders score “proficient” in math and science. In this ongoing series, sponsored this month by Girls Rock Math and Living Computers: Museum + Labs we’ll explore how schools and organizations are approaching STREAM in new, game-changing ways.

As a college freshman at the University of Chicago, Kristin Lauter was baffled by the deltas and epsilons of her honors calculus class. She’d always been good at math; in fact, she loved it. As a little girl, she’d played math games with her father and in high school she’d been in honors math. College calculus, though? It made no sense. Frustrated, she decided to drop the class.

But when Lauter went to get the signature from her professor that was required in order to leave the course, her teacher refused to sign. “No one else understands it either,” the professor told Lauter of her classmates as she encouraged her to stick the class out. It was encouragement Lauter took to heart. She went on to get a Ph.D. in mathematics and is now a principal researcher in cryptography for Microsoft.

Math matters

Mathematics is increasingly the most versatile career in the world of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). Why? Because math is a foundational skill for every career, Lauter says. An undergrad math degree creates a good foundation for careers in engineering, data science, computer programming and even, Lauter points out, biological sciences.

“Over the last 10 years, there has been an explosion and need for bioinformatics, genomics [and] statisticians,” Lauter says. This means having a strong footing in mathematics, which Lauter calls “a very undervalued profession.”

Economists estimate the United States will have 1 million STEM jobs to fill in order to maintain the country’s historical preeminence in science and technology. Unfortunately, the candidate pool to pull from isn’t the most diverse. Women fill nearly half of all jobs in the U.S. economy but less than 25 percent of all STEM jobs. How do you fix that? Get more girls interested in STEM, and in math, from an early age.

That’s easier than it sounds. A 2015 study from the University of California, Los Angeles and New York University (NYU) found that female students tend to exhibit lower math self-confidence as compared to males with the same abilities. There are several factors as to why.

First, there’s a stereotype that math is “only for boys.” In one study conducted by NYU and the University of Illinois, researchers found that teachers and parents unwittingly perpetuate the belief that math is not for girls. Doing so can lead to a lack of self-confidence in math for girls. Those early experiences can, in turn, dictate if girls will choose STEM education and careers. 

The traditional way of teaching math has played a big part in perpetuating the belief that “girls aren’t good at math.” Rote memorization often fosters a competitive atmosphere, which research has found many girls are not comfortable with and thus do poorly in.

Take the findings of a 2010 article published in the Journal of Economics Perspectives. Looking at 20 years of data, the study revealed the ratio of males to females who score in the top five percent in high school math has remained constant at two male students to every one female student. The reason that ratio is static may have to do with how boys and girls view competition; those differences in turn influence math test scores and ultimately give a biased representation of gender differences in math. As the articles authors wrote, “It may be important to examine whether changes in testing or evaluation can allow more females to realize their potential and better measure their current math interests and math skills.”

One change that works: Educators focus on the “why” of math rather than on memorization, says Kimberly Vincent, a Washington State University mathematics education professor. A 2016 study from the American Institutes for Research on “deeper learning” (aka going beyond rote memorization) found that students who employed deeper learning had higher levels of collaborative learning, higher academic engagement and greater motivation toward learning and self-efficacy. These students did better in math and had higher graduation rates. This type of learning, Vincent says, also fosters a more collaborative learning environment with the additional benefit of fostering self-confidence among female students in topics such as math.

Three variables

There are three things that research has found crucial for success in math: an interest in math, confidence gained by being good at it and past achievement that spurs future success.

For Jessica Ellis, a mathematics professor at Colorado State University (CSU), it took the encouragement of her Calculus II professor for her to consider being a math major. Debra Olson, a mathematics instructor at Spokane Falls Community College (SFCC), caught onto math ideas quickly as a student, which increased her confidence and thus her interest in math.

For both Ellis and Olson, as with Lauter, early interest in math translated into long-term achievement. But for girls who don’t get that kind of encouragement or don’t experience that type of success, studies show that they may shy away from math entirely — a dramatic turn that can happen as early as the third grade.

One 2016 study conducted by Florida State University and the University of Illinois examined education data from 7,040 children from third to eighth grades. It found that girls felt less confident overall in their math abilities than boys did, and that disparity in confidence was greater than the differences between boys and girls in achievement and interest at a third- and fifth-grade level. In other words, girls became less confident the older they got. Girls could be interested and good at math, but still not feel confident about it.

Despite calls to give serious attention to this problem, the numbers have yet to really change. According to the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) published in 2015, U.S. students in the fourth and eighth grades, both boys and girls, are making long-term progress in math but by the time students hit advanced math courses, male students continue to outnumber female students. They are also, on average, outscoring them, seemingly continuing patterns established earlier on in education.

Which brings us back to calculus. In most U.S. colleges, any student interested in pursuing a major in a STEM field must first take Calculus I. It’s a tough class for anyone of any gender but the chances of a female student becoming discouraged and discontinuing the class are 1.5 times greater than for a male student, according to a study conducted by Ellis of CSU. Women often leave the class even when they have the ability to continue, says Ellis. It was just their perception of whether or not they could continue that stopped them. 

Teaching encouragement

A former Ph.D. candidate in pure theoretical mathematics who switched to mathematics education, Vincent taught calculus to undergrads. At the beginning of one school year, she started with 50 students — half of them women and half of them men. By the second semester, her class had only five women left.

Intrigued by the forces behind such a dramatic shift, Vincent changed her area of focus to math education. Ultimately, she did her dissertation on women’s attitudes about mathematics. She also changed the way that she taught math by asking more questions of her students and avoiding lecturing.

“I have them make conjectures, then test those same conjectures,” Vincent says of her students. “I want them to know why things work.” The change has made a difference in the gender makeup of Vincent’s classes, she says. “In classes that typically have a 50 percent DWF rate [Editor’s note: this is the percentage of students who earn Ds, Fs or withdraw from the class] mine is considerably lower (10 to 20 percent),” she says. “In classes with 10 to 20 percent DWF rate, mine is usually below 5 percent.”

Olson of SFCC has also tailored how she teaches math and how she educates other teachers about teaching math.

“My ultimate goal is to design a learning experience that allows students to explore, understand and creatively use important math ideas,” she says. A lot of that, she says, comes down to trust, both between the student and the teacher and between the student and herself.

The young women in her classes need to “trust themselves as mathematical thinkers,” says Olson. Only then, by embracing and exploring their own mathematical questions, can the kind of change necessary for a more diverse world in STEM happen. Girls, she says, need to know that they have something unique and something important to bring to math. 

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