Education Nation posted an insightful article, “Cultural Stereotypes Steer Girls Away from Math.” It illuminated that “A ‘math is for males’ stereotype has been used as part of the explanation for why so few women pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).” This is exceptionally interesting, as I have always loved Math (as long as I can remember) and became a Computer Programmer for the IBM Corporation. In high school, my math teacher at Calumet High School in Chicago, Mr. Daniel Mussa, helped by sharing his enthusiasm for solving problems. I even came in 2nd Place in a Chicago-wide Math competition.
When I share my love of math with other students and my children, I tell them how it was not always easy. In college, I had a rough time figuring out a calculus problem. I spent hours and hours on it. But when I finally got it, I could do many more similar problems more quickly. Gosh, it is a beautiful feeling to “Get It” which is often referred to as the “Aha Moment”. According to WebMD, a “study showed that about one-third of a second before the “Aha!” moment, there was a sudden burst of high-frequency brain waves. This type of activity is associated with the high-level processing of information, and researchers say it was also centered in the same right temporal lobe area.” Generally speaking, he temporal lobe of the brain handles recalling and categorizing information.
This problem of the gender gap in Math is puzzling because according to the Carpe Diem blog by Dr. Mark Perry, a professor at University of Michigan, many “females outnumbered males in the top 10% of their 2010 classes – there were 127 female students in the top 10% of high schools for every 100 male students (56% female to 44% male).” This makes me think that there might be some unique pressures or challenges during the standardized testing by females in Math.
I would like to see at least three focal points analyzed: 1. Exactly what kind of problems are males doing better than females? 2. What kinds of errors are females making more and why? 3. Are females completing the problems or running out of time?
When I was the president of our Northeast Kentucky Association of Gifted Education, we had a Math guru, Dr. Linda J. Sheffield, Mathematics Professor of Northern Kentucky University who explained how exercising the brain to solve challenging problems helps the brain to further develop.
Following are a few ideas I have that can improve the attitudes of girls (and boys) toward Math:
1.) Other women should not say in front of young girls, “I don’t like math…I’m not good at math…I can’t do math.” We don’t have to lie about our favorite or not so favorite subjects, but we can cast positive outlooks on them. We can say, “ I should have worked harder at math and I likely would have been better at it.” Students might make mistakes in Math, but it can be fun finding and correcting those mistakes! It bothered me when I couldn’t find my mistakes and I would explain out loud my thinking process or I would get my teacher to explain his. Then I would say, “Oh, but why couldn’t I do it this way?” Then, I could understand the principle that I had misinterpreted or the process that I manipulated wrongly. It’s such a good feeling to know!
2.) Let your children “do the math” to show them how important math is in everyday situations to making good choices and purchasing decisions. Once students learn and apply a process, I sometimes share a shortcut that makes it fun. Our children usually compare best buys for us, calculate their tithes and the tips. When they make mistakes in problems, I might say, “Oh, so if you only owed me $20.00, you would have just given me $200.00 or $25.00, etc.” That potential loss to them hits home quickly!
3.) Start early with your daughters doing Math! Our daughter loves math! Jocelyn is in the 4th grade, but is taking 6th grade Math! She scored in the 99th percentile in Math nationally. I started early teaching her the basics well before she started school. I believe this brought out her skills early while boosting her confidence and enjoyment!
4.) Encourage your child to explain to you how to do a problem. If she can’t, turn to the page in her book that explains how to do it and step through it together. You can also receive help from Khan Academy in arithmetic, algebra and other subjects as well!
5) Play games that promote math usage. Monopoly, ie. gives such opportunities if you encourage your child to calculate percentages of money owed or won; computing their income tax and ahead to see if it’s better to pay the flat rate if they land on that square. There are many on-line games to play and many informal games that you can create!
As I work with my children and volunteer in the schools, I hope to get them to see Math as a Mystery waiting to be Solved and Enjoyed! Education in math will not add up to much if we are not more conscious of the subtle messages that we give our students at school or our children at home! Now, you “do the math” and be positive about its exponential possibilities!