When 2+2 Doesn’t Equal 4

Do you remember when you first became interested in math? Or maybe your memory is when you became afraid of math, decided it was too hard, or perhaps it  just didn’t have much to do with your life?

When I was 8 my father decided he needed to teach my sister and me about the principles of saving. He gave us each some seed money and created a make-shift ledger on a simple sheet of yellow legal-size paper. This was my first introduction to compound interest and eventually I even learned how to calculate it myself so I could double check my dad’s math – my first clue, perhaps, that the banking industry required a little oversight.

In fifth grade, I parlayed these new-found math skills into a moderately successful loan program in the lunch room. Unfortunately, my mother insisted on making our school lunches, so I didn’t have as much capital to play with as I might have liked; but she often doled out the 15 cents needed to buy an ice cream sandwich – a treat that I was willing to forego for a student in need.

I tallied each student’s loans in a small notebook that I carried around like a roving reporter. Really, it was the deal of the century since those who quickly paid me back incurred no fees. I was, after all, merely performing a public service. But be late on a payment and you wouldn’t like the results…(yes, I’m kidding!)

Roll forward to my junior year of high school when I got my first computer as a gift – the Commodore 64. I was mesmerized. Its mere presence seemed to seal my future of getting a math degree and pursuing a career in technology.

I love math as though it’s a member of my own family. I love it for its precision and rigor. I love the history of math, the philosophy behind it (was it created or discovered?)– oh, how I could go on…

What doesn’t add up for me though is why we lose so many students to the prison of math hell before they’ve even made it to high school. And really, this isn’t just about math. It’s about all the so-called STEM topics – science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

According to the National Science Foundation, only 17% of US college students earn a degree in science, technology, engineering, or math. This low figure is made even more curious since the recent skills gap ratio for jobs in computer science and math was 3 to 1. Three jobs for every one qualified candidate. That’s nothing short of an oasis in a desert in today’s job market, and yet it doesn’t seem to be influencing choices of what to study.

If we look at the data across gender lines, the results are even gloomier. Women who do get a degree in a STEM topic are twice as likely to leave a job in their field than men with similar degrees.

But, really, the problem starts much earlier. The numbers show that girls drop out of the STEM pool at every step along the way of their education.

In elementary school, a positive attitude about math and science is equally shared between girls and boys. One report showed that among 4th graders, 66% of girls and 68% of boys had favorable attitudes toward math and science, but by 8th grade a dramatic shift occurs. In just 4 short years, the numbers show boys being twice as likely as girls to still have positive attitudes.

Girls at Chalkboard

Current research suggests that stereotypes are strong contributors to the gender discrepancy. When asked to draw pictures of a scientist, both elementary school boys and girls drew pictures of white men in lab coats. When women were drawn they appeared stern and unhappy. As the stereotypes persist, girls’ enthusiasm wanes.

When I hear about programs created to increase the involvement of girls in STEM, I am at first excited and then often a bit let down. Such programs tend to honor the extraordinary achievement – the high school senior who created a robot capable of scaling small buildings, the future Rhodes Scholar who developed an algorithm to analyze the behavior of the Bonobo monkey.

Yes, those are all fantastic, and programs that promote the extraordinary are necessary and inspiring. But ultimately they miss the point – we are raising entire generations where upwards of 50% are afraid of math, are convinced they can’t calculate a tip for a dinner bill, can’t understand the effects of changing interest rates or assess which insurance plan is the best deal.

If the pervasiveness of stereotypes is even partly to blame, then this seems like a problem we can all participate in solving. When you speak with your children or other young people about math (and I hope you do), try not to promote the stereotypes or validate the fear. Try to relate math to everyday life, even go so far as describing all the times that your day intersects with math. Trust me, it probably happens more than you think.

If you need to double a recipe, you’re using math. If you need to decide how many 12×12 tiles to purchase to cover your bathroom floor, you’re using math.

Math is a language, and like any second language, it requires practice and some may master it and some may not; but there’s no reason why we can’t all understand and feel confident with the basics.

It would thrill me to no end to find more young girls (boys too, for that matter!)loving math, but first I’ll settle for the absence of fear.

Math needs a PR campaign and the best campaigns start at home.