Girls Explore Math Careers by Making 3D-Constructions of Diverse Women Mathematicians' Lives

By Rule, Audrey C.; Blaine, Dana Atwood et al. | The Mathematics Enthusiast, February 2019 | Go to article overview

Girls Explore Math Careers by Making 3D-Constructions of Diverse Women Mathematicians' Lives


Rule, Audrey C., Blaine, Dana Atwood, Edwards, Clayton M., Gordon, Mindy, The Mathematics Enthusiast


Introduction

The United States needs to increase its production of highly-educated workers in the STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics) fields to continue to compete in the global marketplace (National Science Foundation, 2006). Other industrialized nations award a greater percentage of bachelor's degrees in life science, physical sciences, mathematics, computer sciences, and engineering (National Center for Education Statistics, 2007). The National Science Foundation (2008) projects that growth in STEM jobs will outpace other areas.

Although, during their K-12 education years, both boys and girls study mathematics and science in approximately equal numbers with equal achievement and are similarly prepared for science and engineering majors in college (Shettle et al., 2007), fewer women pursue these majors (National Science Foundation, 2009). Men outnumber women in almost all science and engineering fields at college graduation with women earning only a fifth of the degrees in physics, engineering, and computer science (National Science Foundation, 2008, Table 11).

Female students of all races declare college majors in mathematics in about a fourth of the frequency as males, but Native Americans of both sexes choose math less frequently while Asian Americans of both sexes choose math more frequently with females still at about a quarter of the frequency of males (National Science Foundation, 2014, Table 2-8). These data indicate the need for females of all races to receive appropriate instruction and encouragement to pursue mathematics. The current research project examines the reactions, connections, and attitudes of twenty-four diverse fifth grade girls to an extended project in which they learned about six racially diverse successful women mathematicians and created dioramas of their work and lives. The purpose of the study was to determine from student reflections throughout the project the aspects of a mathematician's life or career that allowed students to feel inspired or connected to mathematics.

Literature Review

Images of Mathematicians

Several people investigated people's mental representations of mathematicians during the 1990's and early twenty-first century (e.g., Ernest, 1996; Howson & Kahane, 1990; Lim, 2002; Picker & Berry, 2000, 2001; Rensaa, 2006). These researchers described the widespread public image of mathematics as a difficult, cold, abstract, largely-masculine subject. A drawing task similar to the Draw-A-Scientist- Test (Chambers, 1983), in which 215 elementary and middle school students were asked to draw a mathematician at work was administered by researchers to uncover children's images of mathematicians (Picker & Berry 2000). The results were very similar to those obtained for over fifty years from the Draw-A-Scientist-Test (Finson, 2002) in that a stereotyped, middle aged, balding, or wild-haired man was most frequently drawn. When asked to draw an image of a mathematics teacher, children produced images of middle-aged males with eyeglasses, beards, bald heads or weird hair working at the blackboard or on a computer (Picker & Berry, 2001).

Earlier researchers had found that the public image of mathematicians focused on mathematicians as arrogant, elitist, middle class, eccentric males who were social misfits without common sense or sense of humor (Howson & Kahane, 1990). Part of the problem is that the public do not have a clear concept of what mathematicians do in their careers. Children asked to list reasons why someone would hire a mathematician left the response area blank (Picker & Berry). A study in Norway, which involved interviews of adults waiting for flights at an airport (Rensaa, 2006), found that the frequently chosen characteristics of mathematicians were, single, middle-aged, balding men with eyeglasses and outdated clothing, who were unsocial and boring. Participants who held negative views of mathematicians, compared to those who held more neutral or positive opinions, most often identified the work of mathematicians as doing vague calculations. …

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