Monday, August 29, 2011

Math and girls: How we got there.

Today is the first day of Eldest's math camp. I'm a fly on the wall, doing odds and ends like getting a trash bag for the paper scraps from cut-n-fold polyhedra, or providing a drink of water when I can hear Eldest's voice starting to go.

Right now they're learning about game theory using Skittles. I don't know half of what Eldest is talking about, but I'm used to that; I've been superfluous to her math education since she was ten.

I had some correspondence recently with a reporter from Newsweek who is writing an article about how to encourage girls in STEM subjects (science, math, etc.). Eldest didn't want to do an interview; she had enough of fame as "the brilliant one" in high school, and is happy being an anonymous brain at her brainy college.But this is what I told the reporter:

We did lots of things to nurture Eldest's innate passion for math -- online courses like eIMACS and EPGY, programs from Art of Problem Solving, a local math circle -- but in retrospect there are two things that worked particularly well.

The first was that we always drew a distinction between computational skill and conceptual ability. Kids can grasp many higher-level concepts long before they master the ability to actually do the number crunching. And since schools take forever to get past basic number operations, many bright kids get bored with math before they ever get to the good stuff. It's possible to provide brain food separately. There are fine books to have around the house: picture books by Greg Tang, the classic Math for Smarty Pants by Marilyn Burns, The Number Devil by Hans Enzensberger, The Ten Things All Future Mathematicians and Scientists Must Know (But are Rarely Taught), How to Lie with Statistics and so on. (For even higher-level math, browse the resources here.)  

The second, and most important thing we did was to get Eldest a "math friend". When Eldest was nine we hired Alison, a high school junior and math afficionado, to come over one afternoon a week. My instructions to Alison were that I didn't care what topics they covered, I just wanted her to nurture Eldest's love of mathematics.

Alison taught Eldest to do calculations in different bases, and they did cool Fibonacci stuff, and even some baby calculus. It was awesome. Alison was thrilled to earn $10 an hour (minimum wage back then was about half that), I was thrilled to get a young woman to mentor my child at a reasonable rate, and Eldest was thrilled to have the complete attention of a big girl who shared her passion. Win-win-win.

Alison came every week, and then twice a week in the summer. When she went off to college, she came home and taught Eldest whatever she'd learned that semester: symbolic logic, topology, and things I'd never heard of. She discovered there was a market for doing 'cool math' and started her own tutoring business. After graduation she went on to teach math in a private school.

When I first broached the idea of doing a math camp for girls this summer, Eldest said doubtfully, "Do you really think anyone would come?" Well, yes. With all the focus on standardized tests these days, it's the fun, hands-on, make-ya-think math that has evaporated from schools. And middle school is exactly when it's important for girls to get some reinforcement that it's cool to like math.

I only have one mathy child, so my experience in nurturing a math passion is based on n=1. (My other kids are quite competent, but do not have the blazing passion for math that Eldest has had since she was little.) YMMV, and feel free to ask questions.


  1. Wait...*you* say YMMV? I thought that was a cool-kid expression!

  2. You mean I'm not cool?!

    Oh. Right. I forgot: I'm your mom.

    But YMMV has been around since you were, oh, four or five. Maybe I was still cool back then (before you became a teenager).

  3. Thank you so much for this Julia!!! I'm going to copy and paste this for myself, and share it on FB. THis is invaluable information for me. :)))

  4. Gah. Eaten comment.

    YMMV's been around for longer than that - goes back to the seventies:

  5. Also, nice that this post is about STEM, and the last one was on stemming the storm...

  6. Being a female who loves math, I love the idea of the math camp for girls!

    I do wish, however, that you would not build this up by tearing down public schools. I have spend my career educating public school children as a teacher, gifted teacher and now an administrator. In a much earlier post, you expressed concern about a sad little girl on the subway. Sadly, I hear many, many of these stories on a daily basis from the 600 children who are my responsibility. I live these stories with them every day of the school year. It is my daily passion and I take great pride in making my school safe, challenging and fun for ALL my learners - from gifted to special ed; from affluent to poverty.

    Please do not judge all public schools by the negative experiences you have obviously experienced in NYC. For example, I would never allow the treatment you received (earlier post) in an IEP meeting at my school. In my school we do not teach to the test nor do we take "forever to get past basic number operations". Our gifted students are quite appropriately challenged.

    There are many wonderful ways to educate our children. I am pleased that homeschooling has worked for your family. Please know that there are many dedicated public educators as well who are trying to do the same for the children entrusted to us. We are not in competition with each other. We are all trying to accomplish the same overall goal.

  7. Gee, I'm sorry if that came across as tearing down public schools. I thought I was just stating facts. It's pretty common knowledge in my state and city that the combination of budget cuts and test-based philosophy has led to an obsessive focus on teaching to the test. Almost every parent of a public school student (and many a teacher) complains loudly about this. It's not just a local issue, either. The press is full of articles about the U.S.'s poor international rankings in STEM subjects and about how girls leave math in droves in middle school. The president has made improving STEM education a priority, and provided incentive funding for that. There's a huge portion of the country where math education needs a boost, and the problem is clearly bigger than in my city alone.

    I'm glad to hear that there are exceptions -- and pleased to know someone who runs a school that can challenge every student!

    It's a mistake to assume that we homeschool because we disdain public education. My eldest attended a specialized public high school here where they went out of their way to keep her intellectually stimulated, and we're currently in the process of looking for a public high school for my middle child. In the past couple of years I've spent a fair amount of time advocating for funding for the public school across the street, even though none of my children attend there.

    Hope that clarifies things.

  8. I'd love to know where the Anonymous poster is an administrator. I'd like to find a school like that for my daughter. I too am a public school teacher who is dedicated to the students I teach, however am unhappy (to say the least) about the inequity inherent in the current state of public education available here in NYC.

  9. My school is in Virginia. We have a large percentage of low-income students. I am sad to say that many my students face issues that children should not face in America: hunger, abuse, neglect, substance-addicted parents, etc.

    Virginia also has its share of public school funding problems as well as high-stakes standardized testing. However, I do not want a teacher in my school that gripes about how standards stifle their creativity. Strong educators can make sure the standards are met, required tests are passed AND have a creative, engaging classroom. We accept public funds. Of course we should be accountable for those monies by showing that we reach the standards set for us. I believe good schools can accomplish this with the understanding that we are serving children, not little test-taking machines.

    Are there problems with high-stakes testing - of course! I could go on and on about that subject! However, like everything else in life I can choose to focus on the negative or the positive. I choose the positive - my 600 children!