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Awesome things from 2018


Dr. Ismael Mourifié is an assistant professor of Economics at the University of Toronto in Canada, and he recently won the Polanyi Prize for research on girls’ aversion to math.  Dr. Mourifié noticed at his school in Ivory Coast that girls were a minority and attriting fast in his school’s math program. Dr. Mourifié is also a believer that math is not an innate skill and anyone can be good at math if they have a growth mindset (and I completely agree!).

Dr. Mourifié’s research is primarily driven by gender imbalance in STEM jobs in Canada (22% for females) and that if more girls study mathematics, which is a common language for S, T, and E, then it could reduce the gender wage gap over time. “The dream is to have some impact on the future and have more girls passionate about STEM and having more choice (of careers) in STEM,” says Mourifié. “The ultimate goal is the reduction of inequality between men and women.

Dr. Mourifié believes that many girls develop a fear of math, the term he coins as, “mathematophobia”. He believes that girls avoid math as they progress through school and a lot of time girls’ math anxiety is imparted on them by elementary school teachers, many of whom are females (84%) and not graduates in STEM fields.

I appreciate that Dr. Mourifie is highlighting and researching math education-related challenges in Canada, and I am very encouraged by it.


Girls: Cambridge Mathematics

The Department of Pure Mathematics and Mathematical Statistics (DPMMS) and Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics (DAMTP) are the two Mathematics Departments at the University of Cambridge. University of Cambridge has one of the best and most reputable math programs in the world. I know a few math girls who recently have pursued either undergraduate or graduate studies there and really enjoyed the campus life.

As per the university website under their diversity section, Philippa Fawcett came to study mathematics in 1887, and “In 1890, Philippa Fawcett scored the highest mark of all the candidates for the Mathematical Tripos. A severe test of both mathematical skill and stamina, the Tripos was examined by twelve three-hour papers, taken in close succession and requiring in depth answers to complex and diverse questions. The subject was still largely considered to be a male bastion and Philippa’s unprecedented success raised some uncomfortable questions. ”

I came across this article and was surprised to see trends similar to other selective schools regarding how many girls pursue math as a major even though Phillippa set a great example nearly 130 years ago. Still only one of out 6 students admitted in the Cambridge math undergraduate program are girls.

Professor Julia Gog’s (member of the Maths Undergraduate Admissions Committee) commented that “gendered interests and roles are shaped by external forces from even the first few months of life, and I firmly believe this is limiting the number of women in STEM subjects in this country. While we can and do work hard in our outreach in attracting applicants of all kinds, clearly that can’t cut through a lifetime of being implicitly (or occasionally explicitly) told that maths is not for people like you.” This is very consistent with all the research done on this topic, even in the United States, as I have covered in my previous blogs.

I am encouraged that the university is taking steps with the Women of Mathematics exhibitions and several other programs that are targeted specifically at women which have helped making women more visible and providing role models to current and future students.


My Harvard-MIT Mathematics Tournament Experience

The Harvard-MIT Mathematics Tournament (HMMT) is a high school competition that is held in Cambridge, MA and the competition location typically alternates between Harvard University in November and MIT in February. This tournament attracts many top students in mathematics from everywhere. Like PUMaC, HMMT is also organized by student volunteers who are currently attending Harvard and MIT.

I never participated in the November contest but got a chance to participate in the February one. The differences between the two are listed here. November one can have 6 students and the February one can have 8 students in one team. I have to admit that this is not an easy contest and so guidelines of knowing your level and participating in the right one is important. For example, if you can do first few problems of AIME comfortably, then participate in the November one where as if you can do later AIME problems and AMO problems, then participate in the February one.

Overall, I was exhausted at the end of the day after doing many hours of math. We started in the morning with the Team (Proof based) round first then you get 3 individual tests for Algebra, Geometry, and Combinatorics which are 50 minutes each. These problems are like harder AIME problems and I was able to solve four in each category. We got a nice lunch break after the individual round and then proceeded to the Guts round. This is a fun round where you can see how your team is doing on a big screen in the MIT Math building. At one point, my team was in the top 15 teams which made me feel very proud. The best way to prepare for this contest is to practice using previous tests which are here. I also really enjoyed practicing with my team a few weeks prior to the test. We met for a few days on the weekends.

Overall, the student volunteers at Harvard and MIT did a wonderful job in organizing the event with close to 1000 high school students on the campus. I also got a chance to visit MIT and sit through their information session.



“Math departments fail too many calculus students….

David Bressoud is a well-known mathematician who is a Professor of Mathematics at Macalester College and a former President of the Mathematical Association of America (MAA).  In this article, he advocates for colleges changing the way they teach calculus. He argues that the current model of instructor-led teaching is outdated and that even the students who pass the introductory courses in calculus are not always prepared for the higher level ones. Dr. Bressoud recommends active engagement in mathematics, which is usually referred to as “active learning.”

NSF funded a $3 million five-year project called SEMINAL, which stands for Student Engagement in Mathematics Through an Institutional Network for Active Learning. 12 public universities are working together on this project to show how active learning can be used in mathematics classes from precalculus through higher forms of calculus.

Even in 2018, I feel that calculus and related courses are seen as tough and gatekeepers for many aspiring students, whether they want to pursue STEM related education or economics and finance. In my high school, performance in calculus courses is critical to advance to the next level and to qualify for honors level courses in subjects like Physics or Computer Science. Even the Wharton @ Penn undergraduate admissions list shows the requirement to “have taken calculus during high school.”

I am fully in agreement with this article, in that we need to revamp how calculus is taught in high schools and colleges. Calculus is not seen as a very inclusive class which discourages many girls and minorities to enroll, with media as well stereotyping calculus students in a negative way. This research report from Dr. Bressoud and others does a nice job of giving a lot of details including this profound statement: “The worst preparation a student heading toward a career in science or engineering could receive is one that rushes toward accumulation of problem-solving abilities in calculus while short-changing the broader preparation needed for success beyond calculus.”