Gender gap still a problem in math, professor says

2/11/2008 - By: Sue Putnam

When Mattel Toys premiered the talking Barbie doll in 1992, the doll’s first words were, "Math class is tough." Although the toy makers may have thought they were just stating the obvious, parents and teachers objected to the reflection of a gender disparity in math that continues right into the 21st century.

“The gender gap has narrowed over the years, but boys continue to outperform girls on standardized math tests like the SAT, where girls score approximately 35 points less than boys on the math portion,” associate professor of mathematics education Lynda Wiest said. “And males still pursue more math-oriented college programs and careers than females.”

That’s why Wiest believes girls should be exposed to learning styles that both boost their confidence and broaden their perspectives about math. In 1998 she created the Northern Nevada Girls Math and Technology Camp, which takes place this year July 20-25 on the University campus. The annual week-long residential camp, based in the College of Education, is designed for middle school girls and allows them to explore topics such as problem solving, geometry, spatial skills, data analysis, probability and algebra.

“The camp helps prepare students for algebra and other math classes which are important subjects when considering a college career path in science or engineering,” Wiest said. “In middle school, students are beginning to make decisions about future course enrollment and career options. Programs like this are a good way for the girls to explore career possibilities and learn new ways of thinking about math and technology.”

The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics board recently appointed Wiest as the organization’s representative for a three-year term on the Joint Committee on Women in the Mathematical Sciences. An elementary and middle school teacher in Pennsylvania for 11 years, Wiest points out that we still live in a “mathophobic” society. She believes constant social messages, such as a television commercial for computers that features a “damsel in distress,” the fact that parents still purchase more tech toys for boys than girls and even the name “Game Boy,” all contribute to role modeling that can produce math anxiety.

“Girls like to learn collaboratively, working in pairs or small groups. They’re holistic, in that they want to see the big picture and understand the meaning behind mathematical procedures.”

Reviews from both camp participants and parents range from grateful to a sense of awe about what a difference a week makes.

“She wouldn’t stop talking about how challenging the math and technology activities were and how ‘cool’ it was to participate in recreation activities with her new friends,” Silvana Vacilotto wrote of her daughter Ariel. “The fact that they stayed in a dorm was also a huge plus to her excitement.”

Over the years, demand for the math camp has dramatically increased and Wiest receives double the amount of applicants the current funding for the program and the nine instructors can handle, so the selection process involves a random drawing. Northern Nevada girls who will have completed the sixth or seventh grade this spring and want to be a part of this year’s camp can contact mathcamp@unr.edu for more information.

Funding for the camp is provided by the Lemelson Education and Assistance Program, the Regents Award Program, International Game Technology, the Mathematical Association of America/Tensor Foundation and an anonymous donor from the Community Foundation of Western Nevada.


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