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I might be *gasp* a role model March 15, 2012

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, feminism, gifted, math, societal commentary, younger son.
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My younger son is in chess club, and one of the girls, whom I’ll call K, is in his class and also in the club.  K is a pretty bright cookie as she has won things like spelling bee and chess tournaments.  I was picking him up from the club on Tuesday when K said hi as she walked by.  A couple seconds later, K came back to ask me if I would be coming to their class for our weekly math lesson this week.  I said I would, and she cheerily went on her way.

I went in for our lesson earlier today, only to find that the teacher was sick.  Rather than work with the smaller group of kids as planned, I offered to read the whole class a math story (which I’ve been doing every other week).  So I read Sir Cumference and the Isle of Immeter.  They were all very excited, and there was a lot of discussion about the story.

At the end of the session, one of the girls came up to me (whom I’ll call F).  F isn’t in the group I work with regularly, so I don’t know much about her other than she’s not as advanced in math. (I assumed that meant she wasn’t all that interested in it.) She’d been in the restroom and had missed the first page of the story and wanted to see it.  I said I could leave the book with her to read.  She was very excited.  Then K came up and gave me a hug, and after she was finished, F gave me a hug.  I was rather shocked, though certainly not unhappy about it.

I’m trying to process it, though, and it seems interesting in light of a couple semi-related things.  First, I came across an article about how reducing academic pressure helps kids succeed.  Given the younger boy was having huge difficulties with perfectionism, my response to this was, I admit, nothing more than, “Duh!”  We’re helping him to deal with this by using his math program.  Some days he does very well, other days, he’ll get somewhere between 75% and 80% right.  I try to tell him that I appreciate his hard work, and that if he doesn’t get it right, it only means he needs more practice.  He’s also learning that he almost never gets 100%…and that is making him okay with doing things wrong.  Yeah, he still gets frustrated, but he’s not so scared to try anymore.

However, I realized that I’m kind of doing this with the kids I’ve been working with at school.  I’m doing stuff with them that I don’t completely expect them to get, but I also don’t get upset if they get it wrong.  And there’s no grades. We’re doing it to have fun and to learn, and I think the kids really like doing something just for fun.

Another recent event was when a coworker started lamenting to me how his daughters, who are middle school aged, seem uninterested in math.  Being an engineer, he’s very disappointed, especially because they seem to be quite good at it.  I suggested he get the books written by Danica McKellar and give them to his daughters.

Now, I have to say that I can’t imagine myself reading those books when I was that age (of course, I could very well be wrong – although I had some unusual role models).  On the other hand, I figure that if there are bright girls out there who are eschewing math and these books get them interested, then I’m all for it.  It turns out that my coworker did give them the books and, even better, they really seem to be enjoying them.  Maybe they won’t turn into math majors, but he seems a lot happier, and they may be enjoying math more.

I’ve talked about efforts like Nerd Girls in the past, and I have to admit I felt it was stupid to try to ‘girlify’ engineering to attract women.  On the other hand, I’m obviously the kind of woman who wasn’t very stuck on social messages about women in science or engineering.  It’s not hard to imagine that there are a lot of young, intelligent girls out there who feel social pressure to avoid technical areas because they lack role models.  Maybe some of those girls really need things like Nerd Girls and Danica’s books.  I don’t have any daughters, so I can’t really say much based on experience.  After my experience today, though, I’m wondering if female role models are far more important to some girls than I ever thought.

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Comments»

1. Chris Lindsay (@ChrisLindsay9) - March 15, 2012

What a great story! And you’re right, even if they don’t become math majors…the fact that they were inspired in some way is a great thing.

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2. Alison - March 17, 2012

I think it’s great that you’re inspiring girls in math. I was just thinking about this topic the other day when I read this article. http://news.yahoo.com/florida-14-old-buys-distressed-home-174503183–abc-news.html.

This 14 year old girl in FL bought a distressed house with her real estate agent-mom. They fixed it up and are renting it. I read through the article thinking “What a cool girl.” Then I got to the end, and it said this: “Tufano, who is home-schooled, said her favorite subject is American history, but dislikes algebra because she is ‘really, really bad at math.'”

Here’s a smart, ambitious girl who’s barely into her teens, and she’s already given up on math. It’s frustrating.

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mareserinitatis - March 17, 2012

My niece got an A in calculus, and I remember suggesting she go into engineering in college. Definitely got the feeling she felt like she ‘couldn’t’ do it. Makes no sense…and is so sad.

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3. geekmommyprof - March 17, 2012

I actually find that engineering may be a turn-off for many women precisely of the immense hands-on component (I fall in that camp). Actually, I think women who are good at math or science are more inclined to look at some more esoteric topics — like computational sciences, for instance — precisely because the getting your hands dirty is not as important or as appealing as for guys. Of course, I am speaking in generalizations here. I graduated two female PhD students and they both kicked serious a$$, both on the theory and the programming aspect of work. I myself was always good in the lab, but it never excited me. But math and theoretical/computational physics — oh boy!

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