Math and Science: or How to Inspire Girls to Pursue Their Interests or How to Keep Teachers Calm About It

| March 3, 2011

On Tuesday, March 1st, Slate published an article entitled “Psych Out Sexism: The Innocent, Unconscious Bias that Discourages Girls from Math and Science.”

According to the author, Shankar Vedantam:

“Less than one in five professors of science and math at top research universities in the United States is a woman. The gender distribution of engineers at top Silicon Valley companies is similar to the gender distribution of the audience at your average strip club.”

This is probably not news to many of you. However, what might be news is a research study that Vedantam discussed. In this study, completed by a group of four (mixed male and female) scientists at UMass Amherst, the results showed that female students fared better and felt better about their performance on math or science tests administered by a woman. When tests were given by a male student the female research volunteers felt angry about math or at themselves, which resulted in worse test scores.

Now, why should this be? Vedantam points to the answer in another study done by researchers at Georgia State University, nearly 30 years ago. This study found that high achieving women see themselves as imposters. They do well, but feel terrible about it. The study discusses ways that talented, smart women can combat these negative feelings about their success.

Now, here’s where I fell into the rabbit hole. As a future teacher, I want to be able to encourage young female students in my classes who gravitate towards  math and science. However, this led me to another topic: anxiety among educators to teach math or science.  This article discusses the fact that some teachers get a little nervous when teaching math and science.   Then, I found this article, posted on Smithsonian’s blog and based on research conducted by scientists at the University of Chicago that found that female elementary school teachers pass on the fear of math and science to their students.

I began to despair, because, (gulp) I grew up with a healthy fear of math. I do not want to pass that on to my students. This is mainly because, as an adult, I realize that math is not scary. It can be difficult, but it can also be fun!

So, how does one first, get over their fears? There are a wealth of articles on this topic. There was even a graduate level course developed to help preservice elementary teachers get over their fears of math.

It looks as if there is indeed hope for the teachers. But what about the elementary school students? Well, there are also some books that recommend help for inspiring girls to tackle math and science.

This is clearly a topic that warrants more discussion and thought. Has anyone out there dealt with a math anxiety and gotten over it to teach successfully at the elementary level?