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At Stanford, middle-school girls learn new ways to master math

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Meera Desai, a Bay Area high school student, came up with the idea of organizing the math festival.

Math festival participants pose for a selfie with Meera Desai (center) after the conference at Stanford University.

More than 120 middle-school girls from across the San Francisco Bay Area convened at Stanford University recently to participate in a math workshop aimed at encouraging young girls to become passionate about STEM subjects, especially mathematics. The daylong conference consisted of various interactive math and science problem-solving exercises that helped attendees develop new and innovative methods to think about mathematics. It also featured talks and presentations by a host of accomplished female STEM leaders who have excelled in a wide array of STEM fields.

Billed as a “Math Day for Middle School Girls,” the workshop was co-hosted by Youcubed, a nonprofit center housed at Stanford’s Graduate School of Education that provides resources for teaching and learning mathematics. Youcubed was co-founded by Jo Boaler, a distinguished mathematics education professor at Stanford who has conducted pioneering research on math education reform and effective ways to promote gender equitable mathematics classrooms.

The gender gap within STEM fields is striking. According to the Nation Girls Collaborative Project, although women earned 57% of all bachelor’s degrees in all fields in 2013, they earned only 43% of the degrees in math and just 19% and 18% of the degrees in engineering and computer science respectively. Of all the Ph.D.s awarded in mathematics, women earn fewer than 30% of them. The gender gap can be detected relatively early: twice as many boys as girls earned perfect scores on the math section of the SATs in 2015.

Unfortunately, such statistics have helped create a simple but dangerous stereotype: boys are better at math than girls. It is a stereotype that has been reinforced by popular culture, the media,

and of particular concern, by teachers and professors in classrooms across the country. It has led to the proliferation of a commonly held belief that most girls “just don’t have math brains.” As a result, scores of young girls develop a fear and aversion to math, which leads them to abandon the subject and leave school without an understanding of basic math fundamentals. This, in turn, hinders math-related pathways and STEM career opportunities moving forward.

Despite popular myth, however, the glaring disparity is not linked to any purported differences in aptitude between the two genders in the field. On the contrary, extensive research has repeatedly demonstrated that females actually perform better than their male counterparts in mathematics if they are kept engaged and excited about the discipline early in their educations beginning in elementary and middle school.

It was this key idea that prompted Meera Desai, a Bay Area high school student with a lifelong passion for mathematics to come up with the idea of organizing the math festival at Stanford. Over the past several years, Desai has successfully qualified and participated in several of the most competitive and prestigious math competitions in the country, including the American Math Competition and the American Invitational Math Exam.

Although Desai consistently scored in the top percentile, outperforming her male colleagues at the state and national levels, she could not help but notice she was one of just a handful of girls competing. This was an arena dominated by men. “The lack of other young girls competing bothered me a lot and I wanted to do something about it,” Desai explains.

This prompted her to embark on her own research on the gender gap and how to bridge it, particularly within the context of girls her own age. Desai’s research led her to Professor Boaler’s acclaimed book “Mathematical Mindsets,” which presents new and creative ways to effectively teach mathematics to students. Desai contacted Boaler and proposed the idea of organizing a math festival at Stanford geared toward getting young girls excited about math.

Boalers’s research revealed that the way math is currently taught in classrooms is done so in a manner that appeals more to boys than to girls. Girls, more so than boys, seek to understand the subject deeply, to make connections between math and the real world. A more connected approach to the subject allows them to better understand the material and master key concepts. Teaching in ways that better connect the dots, therefore, enables both boys and girls to learn more effectively. In other words, how girls learn is just as important as what they learn.

With these lessons in mind, the middle-school attendees at Stanford collaborated in an informal group setting to discover new solutions to numerous sets of problems. One exercise required them to use dry spaghetti, tape, string and a marshmallow to build a model skyscraper. Solving this challenge and others like it required the girls to formulate solutions that called for original, deep and visual thinking—key concepts also derived from Boaler’s work.

The students also heard from female speakers working in STEM fields, including university undergraduates and faculty members like mechanical engineering professor Allison Okamura.  For the conference organizers, it was important to highlight high-achieving female role models excelling in these different realms. They provided the middle-school girls with simple but powerful messages relevant to more than just the audience members. That math should be a team activity. Nobody is born with or without a “math brain.” And when it comes to solving math problems, slow and steady wins the race.

Stanford Provost Persis Drell, former dean of the School of Engineering and director of the famed SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, also spoke to the assembly of girls, providing them with one important piece of advice. “You shouldn’t be worried about the long-term future, you should just be worried about being prepared for the long-term future.” And to do that, she concluded, the girls all needed to “take math.”