Note: A few weeks ago, I spent a fantastic week in Santa Fe as one of the instructors at the annual Santa Fe Science Writers Workshop organized by New York Times reporters Sandra Blakeslee and George Johnson. There's a lot of budding talent out there, which is why I told all the students in my little group that if they wanted to write a guest blog post for Cocktail Party Physics, they were more than welcome to submit something. Alex Morgan took me up on it (sucker!). He worked for GM for years as an engineer, and is now testing the science writing waters. Here's his rumination on girls and math, and his struggles to interest his own daughter in math — a subject near and dear to my heart as I slave away on my calculus book.
My beautiful daughter, Julia, was in the second grade when she first told me she hated math. I found this puzzling, because she didn’t seem to be having any particular trouble with it. My wife thought she was just teasing me, because I’m a mathematician. I decided a low key approach was best, so I didn’t make a big issue of it.
Julia is now in the fifth grade, about to “graduate” to middle school. Her vocabulary has developed over the last four years. “Math sucks,” she told me recently, after working through a few pages of homework.
I couldn’t stand it. This girl had scored almost high enough in the standardized tests to automatically qualify for the advanced math track in middle school. What could be the problem? That night, after Julia had washed her hair, I approached her with my tape recorder. Cornered, she consented to an interview.
“What don’t you like about math.”
“It’s a lot of hard work,” she said, “and you have to memorize stuff, and when you don’t get the right answer, you feel really stupid.”
“You like your other subjects,” I said. “You love to read and write. What’s different about math?”
She settled back and gave a little smile. She was enjoying being interviewed. I was reminded of Ann Bancroft graciously indulging a Variety reporter. “When I write, I can say whatever I want to say, but in math there’s just one right answer.”
She had a point there. I loved mathematics for its concreteness, its lack of ambiguity. It felt to me like a solid anchor in a hostile, subjective world. But the flip side of that is you can be definitely, unambiguously, totally wrong. You can’t plead “I was robbed,” like you can when the blind umpire calls you out or your sterling essay is marked with a D minus by a demented grader.
I wanted to see if peer pressure was a factor for Julia. It’s often cited as a reason girls don’t like math. I thought I should be a little indirect. “Do you know anyone who likes math?” I asked her.
“Austin likes math,” she said. Austin is a boy and a friend (not a boyfriend). “He likes it so much, he’s going to do math all summer, so he can take advanced math in middle school.”
“You could do that,” I said, casually eager. I couldn’t help myself. “You were very close to qualifying on that test they use.”
Julia adjusted the turban she had tied out of a towel over her wet hair. “Don’t be silly, Daddy.”
She looked more bored than annoyed. I decided I could continue. “Do you know any girls who like math?”
“Do you think girls aren’t supposed to like math?”
The journal Science in July of 2008 ran an article “Gender Similarities Characterize Math Performance,” which analyzes data from the United States on math performance in grades 2 through 12. It reports that on average girls do about as well as boys. The intent of the paper seems to be to dispel the idea that women lack mathematical ability. The recent New York Times article, “Women Bridging Gap in Science Opportunities,” supports this idea, as does another new report (published June 1 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences), in which researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison found no innate difference in the math ability of girls and boys. But for Julia, that isn’t the point. She’s always done well in math, better, in fact, than her friend, Austin. She just doesn’t like it.
Julia’s math classes emphasize “memorize and recall.” Some exploratory elements are tacked on – at the end of a section she’s sometimes asked to measure something or count something and look at the patterns the counted or measured numbers make – but this exploration is not featured enough to make a difference in the “feel” of the class. Her curriculum has been packed with so many “topics,” there is little time left for discovery. Like, she had to memorize the definition of a number as opposed to a numeral and learn how to write numbers (oops, I mean numerals) in “expanded form.” Here’s an example of expanded form: 235 = (2 x 100) + (3 x 10) + (5 x 1). I had to look it up in the parent’s guide. She also had to memorize: standard form, word form, short-word form, and exponential form. I can’t imagine why she’s bored.
Mathematics needs to be motivated. There are two sorts of motivation possible. The most obvious is to teach something that isn’t mathematics (like physics or cryptology) and then mix in the math. When I was a math grad student at Yale, both math and engineering faculty taught calculus. All the students wanted to take it from the engineers, because they would motivate the math with illustrations and examples from basic physics and mechanical engineering. The mathematicians didn’t see the need for this. I still remember a professor beginning his calculus class –- first day -– by proving that the epsilon-delta definition of limit was logically equivalent to some other definition – without any motivation.
An alternative to motivating mathematics with physical examples is to teach in a discovery mode. Basically, the teacher doesn’t give the students the facts but sets up mathematical experiences and experiments that lead the students to discover the facts themselves. For this to work, the teacher needs to be really into math. For example, the SEED program takes this approach, and it generally uses teachers with mathematics degrees, often graduate degrees. It’s my impression that SEED has been implemented only in urban school districts. In Julia’s suburban school, SEED isn’t available, and her teachers have generally not been that enthusiastic or skillful at math.
As it stands, Julia is steadfast that she hates math. While I believe this represents a failure of the school system (and me), Julia scores high on the standardized “no child left behind” type tests, and for the schools, that’s success.
Julia may encounter girl-prejudiced teachers or math-negative peer pressure as she goes along, and if I get wind of it, I’ll do what I can to counter it. But the core problem she faces, as she enters middle school “hating” math, is the math teaching itself, gender neutral, uninspiring for all.
The actress and mathematician Danica McKellar has written a book explaining middle school math called (coincidentally) Math Doesn’t Suck (2007) and a sequel, Kiss My Math (2008). McKellar’s books are flamboyantly “girly” and packed with lots of sugar and froth to make the mathematical medicine go down. I’ll probably see if I can get Julia interested in the first book some time over the summer. I know she might resent my pushing math on her. But how can I let my little girl go math-less into the big world without trying at least a few stratagems? I know whatever I do she’ll be required to continue with math for four or five more years in school, but I’d like her to take it more seriously. Right now, she looks at math the way a bored aristocrat looks at a groveling peasant, giving only the smallest amount of attention along with a goodly portion of contempt.
“Can you fix my clock now, Daddy?” she asked, discretely offering to change the subject. We’d lost power at the house due to high winds that morning, and I had agreed to reset her Hello Kitty alarm clock for her. I got a penny to push the nasty little time-setting buttons, a secret I had discovered after bruising my fingers setting her clock a few times before.
“You know,” I said as I fumbled with her treasured icon of pink cuteness, “it took a lot of math to make this gadget: Electrical engineering for the circuits, that’s practically a branch of mathematics; chemistry, to get this pink plastic just the right shade of pink, you’ve got to solve chemical equilibrium equations; design software, how do you think they got those tiny eyes and big pink bow just right? Hello Kitty would be a messed up cat without lots of math.”
Julia eyed me with her aristocratic disdain and didn’t feel the need to respond. Mathematicians, scientists, and politicians are debating education policy and opportunities for women in STEM careers (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), but Julia is still living in a world where she need not trouble herself about the future. Of course, I won’t be able to leave her untroubled with her misconceptions, but I was done for the evening.
“You want me to read to you?” I asked. I’d been reading her The Secret Garden. I doubt if she’ll let me read to her at bedtime much longer. She’s growing up. But for tonight she was cool with it.