Should girls be encouraged to take more math classes?
A female student enters my classroom with a look of trepidation. “How am I doing in chemistry?” she asks, adding, “You know, math is the only class that’s easy for me.” She whispers the words like a secret.
Many of my female chemistry and physics students tell me they’re good in math. Perhaps they don’t think anybody else knows. Perhaps they’re right. Girls should be encouraged to take more math classes so that the secret gets out.
The two disciplines that I teach require a fair amount of algebra and some higher math, but girls need to take rigorous math classes because they need the background to help them succeed in all of their classes, not just science. Assessing and collecting data, predicting financial outcomes, or engaging in population studies, for example, all require highly developed math skills.
When I was in high school, algebra was justified for girls because it helped us double recipes. Today we realize that girls need math to enter the fields of accounting, engineering, pharmaceuticals, and computer science, among others.
It’s often been argued that girls’ academic strengths lie in the areas of language arts and communication. I submit that mathematics is, simply put, another form of communication. Algebraic formulas have structure, syntax, and meaning. Statistics uses numbers and graphs to communicate complex concepts and ongoing trends. Geometry allows us to think in three dimensions and to defend proofs—skills important for girls.
I tell the students in my classes that I got straight A’s in math right on up through Calculus III. I think it lets the girls (and boys) know that a female student can do well in math. Deep down, however, many of the girls already know this. It is their little secret, and they are just waiting to tell someone.
Linda Lee Kennedy teaches chemistry and physics at Briggs High School in Columbus, Ohio.
Girls should not be encouraged to take more math classes. They should be encouraged to take more classes that will help them excel at what they are already good at; to take more classes in areas in which they need to improve; to take more classes that will help them prepare for college and to make a career choice.
If those classes happen to fall in the realm of math, so be it. Advice from teachers should be based on what is important to the child and her family, not on what statistics say about how genders perform in certain areas.
I know that females are underrepresented in math- and science-related fields. Three of my colleagues and I are busy recruiting sixth- to ninth-grade girls to attend a program called “Expanding Your Horizons,” a day-long series of fun, educational workshops designed to introduce girls to a range of career fields in science, medicine, aerospace, engineering, and much more. Rather than finding ways to encourage taking particular classes, I continually seek out opportunities to introduce girls, as well as boys, to the different fields within science, math, and technology.
Like the “Expanding Your Horizons” program, these opportunities are not classes per se, but are workshops, field trips, and other activities that expose the kids to the topics in settings outside of the classroom. These experiences not only familiarize students with the academic side of the subjects, but also with their real-life applications, which could spark an interest in a course of study for college and a career. If an experience clicks with a student and ignites an interest, they then know what classes will best prepare them for that particular course of study or career. If the classes happen to be math classes, only then would I encourage students (male or female) to take m