By Mike Marsee
The second-floor hallway of the Ralph G. Anderson Building at the University of Kentucky is lined with pictures of College of Engineering graduates from the 1960s. In some classes, there were one or two women among dozens of men; in others, none at all.
On the other side of the wall, two classrooms full of young women spent a Saturday morning considering whether they’d like to be part of changing that ratio.
Jenny Begley, for example, wants to study civil engineering. That’s why the Washington County High School senior was attracted to an event at UK that was all about mathematics – and exclusively for girls.
“I love, love, love math,” she said. “I could do math all day long. Give me math and not English or anything else.”
Begley found herself in good company Nov. 7 at the UK Department of Mathematics’ High School Mathematics Day for Women. About 60 young women, most of whom came with a teacher, immersed themselves in mathematics activities and met other students who shared their interest in a discipline dominated by males.
“I think it shows that we have the same amount of ability as guys to do math, especially in the workplace. With engineering, you see mostly white males. I think it’s good to have diversity, to have females in something that may be more male oriented,” Begley said.
Rachel Ritchie, a senior at Scott County High School, said she was encouraged to see so many females who share her interest in math.
“I was in an engineering program at my school for a couple of years, and more girls are coming into it, but it was mainly guys. In the class above me, there was only one girl,” Ritchie said.
Katie Booth, the gifted and talented teacher at Scott County High School, brought 15 students to the event organized by UK assistant professors of mathematics David Murrugarra and Martha Yip. She said it’s good for young women to have an event like this all to themselves.
“I think it’s really fun because it’s just the girls together. They can, I think, relate to one another well in an environment that tends to be dominated by their male peers,” Booth said. “I think this is unique for them because they get to hang out with other girls who like math. It encourages them to know that there are other people like them.”
Students like them have been coming to this event for at least 10 years, said David Royster, the outreach professor of mathematics at UK who has overseen it for the past eight years.
“It’s been a very active part of our outreach,” Royster said. “We know that girls are traditionally underrepresented in most of the STEM areas, including mathematics. There’ve been recent studies that show that for some reason girls tend to start moving away from mathematics either right at the end of high school or right after calculus class.
“They need to know that there are role models for them, and there are plenty of women working in mathematics who are doing absolutely marvelous jobs. I think they need to see that.”
Sarah Carey, the gifted and talented coordinator for Washington County Schools, said events like this can show girls there’s a place for them in STEM-related fields.
“I think it’s important because a lot of girls just don’t think that they can go into math or science. They know it’s there, but they don’t think it’s for them. So I think these events allow them to internalize, ‘Yes, this is for me, and I can do this in the future if I choose to do it,’” Carey said.
That’s exactly what Claire Telfer was looking for. Telfer, a sophomore at Henry Clay High School (Fayette County) who said she might major in mathematics and go on to study medicine, said she wanted to see the kinds of opportunities that are available to her.
“I wanted to learn more about the jobs involved and learn more about math because I love math,” Telfer said. “It’s promoting women and math-type jobs and engineering and the STEM world, so I think it’s very beneficial.”
Telfer is one of eight students who came with Linda Dewees, an advanced placement calculus teacher at Henry Clay.
“We just started a STEM club at Henry Clay, so we’re trying to get girls who are interested in math and science to branch out and see what’s available to them,” Dewees said. “A lot of them have an interest in math and we thought today would be a fun day to come and see what’s going on.”
Fun was the order of the day at High School Mathematics Day for Women. There were card games and cryptography, a problem-solving competition, a study of the Pythagorean theorem and a talk from a UK professor.
“It’s different because they were bringing mathematics into games and stuff like that instead of sitting us down and saying, ‘This is how you do this,’” Begley said. “It’s playing games and showing us how math is seen in everyday life.”
“The ones who have been multiple years in a row look forward to some of the specific activities that they do,” Booth said.
One of Booth’s students, Scott County senior Elizabeth Duncan, said she had looked forward to returning after attending the event last year.
“It lets us be with people who have the same interests in a non-academic setting. I can see these people in class, but it’s just as important for me to hang out with them and do math-related things outside of class,” Duncan said.
Duncan also attends UK’s Math Circles, a semi-weekly meeting of high school students who are interested in math, but she said that group is “about four girls in a whole room of boys.”
“It’s interesting to meet other girls who have the same interests,” she said.
Divya Sunderam, a freshman at Paul Laurence Dunbar High School (Fayette County), said she has been interested in mathematics from a very young age and has participated in math competitions since she was in elementary school.
“At math competitions, I’ve always been the only girl; everyone else is a guy. Being able to do it with a bunch of girls is great,” she said.
Dewees said events such as this do more for the young women than they realize.
“I think it’s just important for them to see that we value women in math and science and that they have the ability to be successful in math and science,” she said. “The emphasis is saying, ‘Girls, we want you to be successful,’ and that’s something we should come to.”
MORE INFO …
Katie Booth firstname.lastname@example.org
Sarah Carey email@example.com
Linda Dewees firstname.lastname@example.org
David Murrugarra email@example.com
Martha Yip firstname.lastname@example.org
David Royster email@example.com