Newsletter #75     AWM and K-12

Here is the AWM column which I said would follow hard on the heels of my previous newsletter (ha!) It contains a challenge and an offer which are officially directed to AWM members, but most emphatically apply to any of you. In fact, if you're in range, I'll up the offer to include a latte. But you have to read the newsletter to find out the details.

This month's column is simultaneously a report, a challenge and an offer, all in one bundle. All have their origins in a single event, the AWM panel discussion at the New Orleans Joint Mathematics Meetings, entitled AWM and K-8 Education: What should we do? The event itself had its origins in a more general collection of questions which are very much in the AWM consciousness: How can we support the future of mathematics and of mathematicians, especially women mathematicians? What can we do to encourage bright young folks to become mathematicians? What are areas that need help of a kind we are able to supply? What are some ways in which to invest our energy that will genuinely be of benefit?

This particular panel was assembled and moderated by Suzanne Lenhart, who progressed from president-elect to president of AWM a few minutes after it occurred. A bare bones account of the session goes as follows:

Shirley Malcom, of the AAAS, set the scene by observing that mathematical education is a civil rights issue and pointing out the obstacles that students, especially but by no means exclusively women and minority students, must overcome in order to participate in it.

I followed, propounding my view that K-8 teachers have more influence and face more challenges than all of the rest of us, and that while attempts to "fix them up" are both wrong-headed and guaranteed catastrophic, efforts to support them by finding out where their needs are and trying to meet those needs are absolutely mandatory.

Erica Voolich, a seventh grade teacher and winner of a presidential award for excellence in teaching, gave depth and reality to my views by supplying the "view from the trenches" and by making some very specific suggestions of things to do (and not to do.)

Judy Roitman, of the University of Kansas, tied all of our messages together and reaffirmed them, then showed us the way to find mathematics problems and projects to use in following some of Erica's suggestions.

Afterwards the last three of us (Shirley having, alas, zoomed back to D.C.) met with our moderator. We also succeeded in nabbing one member of the Education Committee. Together the five of us came up with a scheme which we hope will encourage lots of you to follow up on the suggestions. Be warned; this is the opening salvo of said scheme!

I'll start by filling in a bit on the panel comments. Shirley first presented a highly upbeat image: that of the three African-American young women who simultaneously completed their doctorates last year at the University of Maryland. She paused to celebrate them and their achievement, then stepped back to broaden the view out to how bleak the situation is around them. One of the factors contributing to their unambiguously magnificent accomplishment is what they had to struggle through in order to achieve it. And that struggle may be theirs especially, but it is certainly not theirs alone. Studies from all sides point up how many bright young people are turned away from the field by a whole battery of factors. The factors affect everyone, but disproportionately they affect women and minorities. Women and minorities, observes Shirley, are like the canaries on the shoulders of miners. The canary keeling over carries definite implications with regard to the health of the miner.

I followed with content largely abstracted from a talk I once gave entitled "Who's looking after the twig-benders?" As a title it left a good deal to be desired (one should not totally confuse one's audience), but I'll still hold to the message. One of my favorite proverbs is "As the twig is bent, so the branch will grow," and there is no question that the bending of the little twigs of mathematical minds occurs way down in the early grades. That heavy responsibility therefore rests on the shoulders of the teachers in those grades. With this weight in mind I chose my verb carefully: looking after. Elementary teachers have a huge and enormously complex job. We may have strong feelings about what they should be doing with one part of their job, but given that there is no earthly way we can understand how that part fits into the rest of their job, there is no sense whatever to our attempting to tell them how to do it. What does make sense is for us to be interested in what they are doing mathematically (which is easy - it's absolutely fascinating when you get into it) and to listen with every faculty available for ways to support and sustain them.

Next came Erica, with some good nuts-and-bolts ideas. Some were for the AWM as an organization (duly noted and to be followed up on.) Some were things for individual mathematicians to refrain from doing, and reinforced my intended message: don't walk in and tell a teacher what to do. The rest were for how an individual mathematician can become involved in ways that will both be helpful to the teacher and provide an opportunity for the mathematician to find out more. Those I will now present almost straight from her notes, which she was kind enough to let me copy: 1) Volunteer time at your local school. You might tutor on a regular basis or offer a twice weekly mathematics enrichment class so the the classroom teacher can have more time to work with the children who need extra help. You could mentor a child who has a talent that needs nurturing, resources and guidance. One of Erica's students got so deeply into polyhedra that he wound up writing to Coxeter (who sent a wonderful reply) - Erica would have loved some support for him along the way. 2) Talk to middle school teachers about your specialty in mathematics and volunteer to come as a guest speaker when the class is studying a topic you are expert on. She gave some examples from her class that would be hard acts to follow (the grandmother who drives an 18-wheeler, for instance), but others one could imagine emulating (the college professor who showed how to analyze an Escher drawing for symmetry.) 3) Offer an after-school or lunch-time mathematics club. 4) Provide monthly family math problem-solving questions for the school newsletter. Correct the submissions and publish the names and solutions. 5) Organize monthly family mathematics nights. 6) Organize a day at your university for middle school girls to see what is happening in mathematics and science. One of the mothers in Erica's school organized an annual day at MIT which is very popular. 7) Work with teachers to offer a family project day. Her school had one last year building toothpick structures and this year building hot air balloons.

As you can see, she provided a nice comprehensive set of suggestions, with a variety of levels of commitment. The only thing that still might be a bit daunting would be the finding of problems of an appropriate level for those newsletters, mathematics clubs and the like - and right on cue, Judy Roitman produced a list of ways to find them on the internet (already photocopied, no less.) I'll finish with that list, but first mention a few of the warnings Judy sounded. I should point out, though, that she prefaced her warnings with a firm disclaimer to the effect that these views are her own, and not necessarily those of the AWM or anyone else. 1) Avoid political involvement. Attempting to solve educational problems through politics leads directly into a quagmire. 2) Avoid conversations with people with an agenda. She had a wonderful list of loaded questions to duck, of which two that stand out in my mind were "Do you think the word 'exploration' should appear in a set of mathematical standards?" and "Do you think that rote memorization is an appropriate activity for a mathematics classroom?" 3) Avoid - and here she used a word which Erica was too polite and I too wimpy to use - arrogance. Our own advanced level of mathematical education does not imply an advanced level of understanding of the process of teaching and learning mathematics. Unfortunately what it does carry with it is an automatic danger of being assumed arrogant. We need not only to have but to project a genuine humility in dealing with the areas which are not within our expertise. Enough of the negative. At the end of this column is Judy's list, with her commentary. Before I get to it, though, I want to produce the promised challenge and offer: The Challenge:  Between now and the end of the school year, I challenge you to follow up on one (any one) of Erica's suggestions. By way of encouraging other people to do likewise, I would like to report further on such efforts. On the other hand, I don't want to overload the challenge by adding extra tasks to it, so we have The Offer:  If you do carry out any of them, just drop me a brief e-mail note that you have done so ( and I will phone you and get your report, so that you don't have to write up a thing. For that matter, the same offer holds if you are already doing something, even without our inspiration. I think it would help for people to know what other people are doing. To finish on a high, keen note, here's Judy's list: -- Some interesting Web sites in K-12 The offspring of the estimable and visionary Gene Klotz, this is the first place to look for anything in mathematics or in mathematics education. It is a good place to get a sense of the landscape in K-12.

Sponsored by the Math Forum, this is a site meant to inspire you by stories of other mathematicians involved in K-12. Some of the projects on this site should be cross-referenced elsewhere in the Math Forum but aren't easily found, for example, the Kovalevsky Days program of the AWM, EDC's  Making Mathematics project, Expanding Your Horizons, and the Bay Area math circles. New material is always welcome; speak to me if you're interested in putting something on this site.

This is the Math Forum's Problem of the Week site. Your local schools' math clubs should know about it (and probably do - teachers are pretty savvy about using the Web).

There are lots of problem sites. This is a fairly comprehensive (but, as you will see below, far from complete) list. Be warned that the sites are uneven; while some of them are wonderful (I'm quite partial to Aunty Math myself) some of them are not.

Another Math Forum site with resources to encourage students.

This is the site for the PROMYS program, a wonderful program bringing high school students and high school teachers together for intense mathematics workshops. A project of EDC.

Another EDC project, a combination of problem site and mentoring (think of it as an electronic Gelfand correspondence school). They are looking for mentors. A great way to be involved in K-12.

This is the main site for the Bay area math circles. --

[Back to index]