Saturday, October 11, 2008

1 + 1 = ?

Math skills in the US suffer from stereotypes even among those who are talented enough according to a study by the University of Wisconsin. This study was different from others as it tested ability and not just SAT scores.

I would like to add my 2 bits coming from personal experiences. I was not surprised by the outcome at all and was very distressed at the conclusions that it drew especially concerning women in math. Too many people, and especially teenage girls, believe that math is some kind of inherited genetic trait. As though researchers will someday identify a "calculus" gene and those that have it get the A's in class.

The study suggests that while many girls have exceptional talent in math — the talent to become top math researchers, scientists and engineers — they are rarely identified in the United States.

If this is so, how can it be explained that a country like highly ranked Bulgaria (highly ranked in the prestigious math competition International Olympiad) has sent twice the number of female participants to the top math competition in the world as the US? This isn't to say that math may come easier to some than others but EVERYONE, even the smarties, need to practice!
By comparison, relatively small Bulgaria has sent 21 girls to the competition since 1959 (six since 1988), according to the study, and since 1974 the highly ranked Bulgarian, East German/German and Soviet Union/Russian IMO teams have included 9, 10 and 13 girls respectively. “What most of these countries have in common,” the study says, “are rigorous national mathematics curricula along with cultures and educational systems that value, encourage and support students who excel in mathematics.”
You can find the actual study here in .pdf.


So Smrt said...

Howdy...I just had to share this. I was one of 4 "girls" in my high school calculus class. I got a 90% on the first exam. When I went up to my teacher's desk to pick up that exam, he said (loudly) "Huh. You don't look like an A student!"

Honestly, it's a miracle that I stayed in science!

Yelli said...

@ so smrt - This doesn't surprise me at all and I am certain that stories like yours are not isolated.

Explain in my case why after 8th grade I was put into Honors English and SS and not math and science even though I clearly had received better grades in Math and Science! I don't know but I assume my extra X chromosome might have had something to do with it.

David said...

One solution to this sorry state of affairs is the growing popularity of Math Circles ( We are particularly fortunate in Dallas, TX that Dr. Titu Andreescu, one of the authors of this study, is the founder and director of the Metroplex Math Circle (

The Big Finn said...

Mrs. TBF was a math major (and A-student) in college. During her junior year, she switched her major from math to history because, as she puts it: "I realized that it was me and 15 Asian men in a classroom with an Asian professor lecturing, whom I couldn't understand, with his back to the classroom. I realized that I was a complete nerd, and I had to change it." In the end, she ended up getting her first job because of her excellent math background, and all has turned out well.
She rarely uses her history background.

Dadio said...

Where is Bulgaria?

Yelli said...

@ David - Those math circles sound awesome! I wish they were around when I was a kid.

@ TBF - I am not sure I can articulate this but it always pains me to hear stuff like this - I wonder how all of us (and there are A LOT of us) female math nerds miss each other in classes like these?