Recently, I was interviewed about Girls’ Angle by Ágata Timón of the Institute of Mathematical Sciences in Madrid. The interview was conducted in English, but published in Spanish:
I would like to thank Ms. Timón and the ICMAT for giving me this opportunity and for taking such care with the interview and the translation (by Jeff Palmer of the Technical University of Catalonia). The topic of gender and mathematics is a challenging one full of subtlety.
If you’re curious about the interview, but, like me, don’t know Spanish, here is the original English version, posted with permission from Ms. Timón:
ICMAT: Which are your main goals?
Thank you for this opportunity to talk about Girls’ Angle.
We aim to be a comprehensive, quality approach to math education particularly for girls in grades K-12. We view math education rather broadly, so one could say that we aim to help girls improve their ability to think using math as an ideal vehicle for that purpose. What we hope is that girls who attend Girls’ Angle all the way through high school, will emerge with the skills and confidence to tackle the yet unsolved. That’s why we have a postdoctoral mentor at every meet. People who have earned doctoral degrees in math have proven original theorems and understand that math is a creative endeavor. They know how to create new math and have successfully endured the psychological challenges of exploring the unknown.
We also aim to produce useful, quality math educational content. For example, we produce a bimonthly magazine, the Girls’ Angle Bulletin, that contains articles on math and applied math, expository articles on math, collections of math problems, math inspired art, and interviews with women in math. For example, we have had interviews with both Ingrid Daubechies and Sophie Morel, the first women ever tenured in the mathematics departments at Princeton and Harvard, respectively. We also recruit mathematicians to write content for the Bulletin. In fact, last summer we received a modest grant from MathWorks expressly for developing Bulletin Content, and we are using these funds mainly to entice mathematicians to contribute. We make videos which can be viewed on our YouTube channel and website, such as Emily Riehl’s presentation on the stable marriage algorithm. And we create special mathematical activities, such as our Math Treasure Hunts, a concept born and developed at Girls’ Angle, and which we now host at schools. I’m currently writing a book on how to make and run Math Treasure Hunts, which I hope will be available by next summer.
Yet, though we’ve been around for just over 5 years, we’ve only realized a fraction of the full vision. Our next major goals are to be able to rent a permanent place of our own where we can hold our meets and offer classes and hire a full-time Head Mentor. Currently, we have to set up and take down Girls’ Angle each meet and we rely on charity to have space to offer courses like Math Contest Prep (which is sponsored by the Microsoft New England Research and Development Center). Head Mentors would be women with doctoral degrees in mathematics who are skillful at and care very much about teaching the next generation. I see no contradiction in the concept of a math professor whose educational duties apply to the K12 level instead of the university level, and these Head Mentors would ideally be mathematical researchers who oversee the teaching of our members. Of course, the only obstacle between where we are now and this vision is a lack of money. But I think there’s hope because the amount of money I think it will take to realize this dream is just a mere fraction of the amounts of money that are routinely moved around in many financial transactions that take place today. We have been trying to develop revenue sources that have the potential to realize sufficient income to achieve these next goals, but donations are much needed and always welcome.
ICMAT: Where does this club come from?
A major source of motivation is probably easiest to explain if I briefly describe my own history with math. I obtained a doctoral degree under the supervision of George Lusztig at MIT and then was a Benjamin Peirce assistant professor at Harvard. So I was walking a path in academic mathematics. But I left academia for oil painting. As my savings dwindled, I started freelancing as an editor in math educational publishing to pay the bills. There I saw first hand just how bad the state of math education has become in the US. Conceptual errors have become rampant in math educational materials produced today, and, even if they are noticed, they are often impossible to weed out. I was shocked into action.
While I was freelancing, I volunteered to lead a modular origami project for an organization called Science Club for Girls. We made geodesic spheres, one of which was on display at Boston Children’s Museum for half a year. It was the first time I worked with an all-girl group and the experience opened my eyes to gender issues in science and math education. I began to see subtle ways in which math education is biased in favor of boys. When I was in academia, it was impossible not to notice the huge gender disparity in mathematics, but I had never really thought about its causes before.
I think there are a number of excellent co-educational math programs. That is the status quo. And the status quo leads to a mathematics profession that is dominated by men. But there are and were very few, if any, comprehensive math programs for girls. So I decided to create one.
I discussed the idea with several people, partly to refine the concept and partly to gauge its feasibility. Two of these people, Lauren Williams and Elisenda Grigsby, were both undergraduate math majors at Harvard when I was on the faculty there and had continued on in mathematics and are now holding tenure-track positions, one at UC Berkeley and the other at Boston College. Those two along with a friend of mine from college and graduate school, Ray Sidney, joined me to form our first Board of Directors. Since then, Bianca Viray, a mathematician at Brown University, has joined the Board.
It’s a peculiar strength and weakness of our Board that every member holds a doctoral degree in mathematics. But I came to believe that one of the reasons for the deterioration of US math education is that there is disconnect between the math educational world and the mathematical world. I felt it important to have leadership that fully understood math as creative art. I saw the many slippery slopes that have dragged down the quality of math education and I wanted leadership that can decisively avoid such slippage.
Girls’ Angle also has a strong Board of Advisors whose members have generously made themselves available as consultants to ensure that Girls’ Angle remains true to its mission. Our Board of Advisors includes two professors at MIT: Gigliola Staffilani and Bjorn Poonen.
ICMAT: Why girls needs clubs?
This question leads to the heart of any controversy surrounding the notion of a math club for girls. It is an important question, though I often wish it were phrased like this: What is the value of a math club for girls? The word “need” complicates matters. In a strict interpretation of the word “need,” the answer would have to be that there isn’t a need. Mathematics is not like oxygen, water, or food.
Our point in establishing a math club for girls is not that “girls need a math club.” Instead, our point is that there exist girls who greatly benefit from an all-girl math educational environment and that there are enough of these girls to justify the existence of several girls’ math clubs.
The human race is diverse. It almost seems that there is an exception to every generalization. For instance, one might assert that boys are XY and girls are XX. But then you take a scientific look and find people who are XXY, XYY, XO, XXX, and even XXYY. One of the challenges in discussing this topic is that there are always exceptions. I guess you could say that not only is the human race rather exceptional, it is also full of exceptions.
Keeping exceptions in mind, I would assert that the modes of instruction best suited to teaching mathematics, especially in the K12 arena, are gender differentiated. I’ve often had conversations with people who don’t seem to understand the complication of exceptions, because they retort, “well, my daughter is in a co-ed math class and she’s the best student in her class!” In fact, I’ve met many women who are successful in mathematics and are highly skeptical of a math club for girls. They think, “I didn’t need a math club for girls!” That was true for them, but these women are exceptions and not the rule. They comprise a distinct minority. A survey by the American Mathematical Society in 2004 found that less than 6% of tenured faculty at 10 top math departments in the United States were women.
That gender disparity is so pronounced that it begs for explanation. Indeed, many scholars research this disparity and there are few, if any, definitive answers. At Girls’ Angle, we believe that boys and girls are equally capable of doing mathematics at the highest levels, and that the way math is currently taught in the US at the K12 level tends to favor boys.
One way in which this preference for boys manifests itself is in cultural messages. Even just last year, a T-shirt company marketed “Allergic to Algebra” shirts just for girls. A few weeks before that, another girls’ shirt read, “I’m too pretty to do my homework, so my brother has to do it for me.”
Another way is that it is hard for girls to find women role models in mathematics. A girl can graduate high school never once having met a woman who uses math in her professional work. In fact, in the US, there is evidence that girls’ math anxiety can sometimes be traced to having a female teacher with math anxiety. At Girls’ Angle, girls work directly with women mentors who love math and understand it deeply at their respective level of the math career path, and we have mentors at all levels, from undergraduate, to graduate, to postdoctoral. Girls also meet professional women who use math in their work in a vital way through our Support Network. These are women like Dr. Elissa Ozanne, who uses statistics to help women afflicted with breast cancer, Dr. Pardis Sabeti, who uses statistics to probe the human genome, and Dr. Karen Willcox, who uses math to design better aircraft.
There are also differences in modes of instruction. Again, acknowledging the ever present exception, roughly speaking, especially in grades 5-10, competitive events resonate more with boys than with girls. Yet, the US math educational landscape is flooded with math competitions. There are dozens upon dozens of math competitions, and many of them test for characteristics that are unimportant in mathematics, yet whose results, nevertheless, strongly influence participant’s self-perception of mathematical ability. At Girls’ Angle, we develop new modes of math instruction that are particularly effective for girls’ math education. Of course, there is great variety among girls, so one cannot point to a single such mode of instruction that works for all girls, but a good example of the kind of thing I’m referring to is our Math Treasure Hunt or Math Collaboration. The basic scenario for such events is that participants are thrown into a predicament from which they must extricate themselves by solving a collection of math problems. Because the participants all win together or lose together, there is no incentive to withhold observations or ideas from each other. We’ve run about 20 such events so far, including a large one, called “SUMiT,” in conjunction with MIT’s Undergraduate Society of Women in Mathematics. Of these, one was a co-ed event and time will tell if it was merely a coincidence that the co-ed event was the only one where there was a scuffle between two participants. Two boys fought over one of the math problems.
ICMAT: What have been your best experiences?
Running Girls’ Angle has given me many experiences that I’ll forever cherish, but my favorite moments tend to be those where girls are learning a lot of math and laughing at the same time.
A good example of that happened soon after the club opened for the first time. We had the girls write, in as much detail as they could, an algorithm for how to eat a banana. The purpose of this exercise is to gain awareness of assumptions as well as provide an exercise in precision communication. When the girls were finished with their algorithms, a mentor would read the algorithm to me and I would perform the algorithm verbatim. Normally, I end up with a lot of banana skin in my mouth, so if anyone reads this and decides to try it, I highly recommend using organic, thoroughly washed bananas. Some girls laughed so hard they started rolling on the floor when they saw the effect of gaps in their algorithm. (I was recently filmed doing this at the recent Math Prize for Girls Games Night.)
Every Math Treasure Hunt that we’ve run affords many such moments. At the second one we did at the club, the girls had to find the combinations to two locks by solving math problems. After much good hard work and with just a few minutes to spare, they thought they had gotten the combinations and rushed over to the locks. When both locks clicked open, a huge, well-deserved, cheer of celebration erupted.
There have also been many amusing moments that don’t directly involve our members. For example, at the 2010 FIRST Robotics Conference in New York City, we hosted a small raffle contest using math problems that were either created or solved by our members. Toward the end of the event, a man who said he was a math major in college came up to our booth asking us how to solve one of the problems and I was able to hand him an article written by one of our 12 year old members showing how she solved it. (If any of your readers are interested in trying this problem, it is to find all solutions to the equation:
For our member’s solution, please see page 29 of Volume 3, Number 3 of the Girls’ Angle Bulletin.)
I also love it when a girl arrives at a meet eager to show us something mathematical that she did in between meets. At the club, we don’t have mandatory homework and part of the mentor’s charge is to try to inspire members so much that they will go home and do math on their own initiative. When that happens, it feels like the club has been a success.