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Making Math Matter to Middle School Girls

Making Math Matter to Middle School Girls

GEMS, which stands for Girls Engaged wi Mathematics, meets two Tuesdays a month
The playground chant of where boys and girls go (Jupiter to get stupider or college to get knowledge) has been debated for ages. But in Crete, there’s a third option. Girls go to GEMS to learn more about STEM.
 
GEMS stands for Girls Engaged with Mathematics, an after-school group started by Dr. Margaret Watts, assistant professor of mathematics at Doane. STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, and is a commonly used acronym to bring more attention to those four areas in school curriculum. 
 
Aside from rhyming, GEMS and STEM are closely linked. A 2017 Microsoft survey found that girls’ interest in STEM starts around age 11 and sharply declines at age 15.
 
Do the math – that’s only four years. 
 
Margaret, aware of this tendency, wanted to show off her favorite subject in a new light to young girls. She applied for a grant from The Mathematical Association of America Tensor Women and Mathematics program. She was awarded the grant in 2019 and thus GEMS was born. 
 
After a delay due to COVID-19, Margaret kicked off the first year of GEMS this fall. Every other Tuesday for one hour, middle-school girls from the Crete area step foot on Doane’s campus to meet at Lied, the science and math building at Doane – a detail Margaret didn’t overlook. 
 
This way, “the girls can be on a college campus and see what that looks like,” she said. 
 
Then the fun begins. Oh yeah, math can be fun didn’t anyone tell ya?
 
Margaret said that at their age, the girls have seen basic arithmetic and a little geometry. Think addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. Triangles with right angles and obtuse triangles. 
 
Their understanding is that math transitions into algebra and calculus in high school and college.
 
“But math is so much more than that,” Margaret says. “And that’s what we’re trying to teach them.”
 
Math is about solving problems and thinking critically. GEMS tries to accomplish that by showing the girls “cool things you could do with math” and “different ways you could think about things.”
 
Margaret introduced the girls to taxicab geometry. Think geometry on a grid. If you’re walking city blocks, you can’t cut through diagonally as there might be a building or some other obstacle. In schools, students learn Euclidean geometry. How distances are calculated differs in each style. Using taxicab geometry, the girls had to draw school lines. 
 
This took the group into their next topics: voting lines and gerrymandering. They talk about female mathematicians, like Hypatia and her work with conic sections. Later on they’ll discuss how 3D printers work – and print something of their own as a souvenir. 
 
Margaret plans and organizes each meeting, relying on Dr. Barbara Jennings Herzog, another associate professor of mathematics at Doane, for input and help running meetings. 
 
These two women make up half of the female associate and assistant professors of Doane’s math department. One male professor and one male professor of practice round out the faculty. 
 
“So we actually have a high ratio of male to female professors, which I think is really cool,” Margaret says. “And another reason why I thought it would be good to have the GEMS program, so they can see, ‘Oh, look, there are females actually doing [this] instead of just males.’”
 
Luckily, Margaret witnessed this growing up. Her mom was a medical technologist, her father a lawyer. Her grandma started a bank. Taking an interest in math – and having a knack for it – came naturally to Margaret.
 
She finished workbooks her mom bought on topics her class had yet to cover. She studied bio math in college, applying math to understand how pancreatic cells work. 
 
While Margaret’s environment and parents encouraged her to pursue her interest in math, she still struggled when math transitioned from arithmetic, algebra and calculus to concepts and proofs. 
 
Margaret said it’s a common hurdle anyone who studies math faces. Girls have more hurdles, though. Research has found that factors like culture and a lack of confidence toward math negatively impacts girls’ likelihood to continue once the subject becomes too hard.   
 
Doane junior Bailee Baack noticed this shift in her own high school math class. Her male peers seemed to be better at math while her female peers asked more questions. But she wanted to rise above the gender stereotypes.
 
“I knew that, yes, math can be a challenge, but everyone can be challenged at it and be successful in it as well,” the elementary and special education major says.
 
Soon, classmates were going to Bailee for math help.
 
“That made me feel good,” Bailee recalls. “I can do things that everyone else can and so just showing them that they can if they would put their mind to it.” 
 
Now she shares this can-do attitude with younger girls. Dr. JL Vertin, associate professor of practice at Doane, noticed Bailee’s math skills and suggested she add a middle school math endorsement – and recommended her to Margaret to volunteer with GEMS.
 
“I’m grateful that Doane is cooperating with the Crete community and helping the younger generation and showing them that girls can be successful,” Bailee says. “I'm glad we started this opportunity. And I'm hoping that it produces and they're enjoying it so then they tell their friends to come the next time we do this program.”
 
GEMS can reapply for the grant for an additional year. Cost won’t be a factor to continue the group, though, as they have the majority of the supplies needed. 
 
Ideally Margaret wants to see girls move through the program all three years and notice if and how GEMS impacted their attitude or skills, “even if they end up not studying math in college.”
 
“As long as they can see that it’s useful and fun and interesting, I’ll take that,” Margaret says. “We’re also trying to hit on a growth mindset. [...] you might not think it’s the easiest thing to do in the world, but you know that if you keep working at it you can improve and get better.”