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Tiny ideas to encourage girls to explore mathematics and physics - 1: Introduction

In current world mathematical and physical literacy are essential tools to form the basis of citizenship, and an ever-growing opportunity to professional achievement.

This said, it's also common girls are penalized in gaining access to this knowledge, worldwide. In part, this deprivation comes from self-diminishing attitudes, not based on facts but on questionable cultural stereotype.

I'm firmly convinced these negative perception of "me towards mathematics or physics" may be corrected, and that some of these corrections may be not terribly hard.

The basic idea is that mathematics (and physics of course) is a human creation, designed to be understand by anyone, given sufficient time and motivation. It's a language, not en encryption scheme. And for all, girl and boys as well, is a foreign language: as such, it's always "hard" to learn - but never impossible to be.

Differently stated: mathematics is hard for everyone, at the beginning. Girls are not worse, nor better than boys.

A less basic point is, that mathematics and physics are so wide and diverse to contain entire realms of knowledge in which any unique individual mind can thrive.

Some aspects may even be specifically fulfilling and attractive to the "web thinkers" usually (but not exclusively) girls are. In particular, for example:
- Mathematics for applications to real world, commonsense problems;
- Mathematics as (also) an art of finding deep, non-apparent connections among very different concepts;
- Mathematics and physics as evolving constructions for building powerful, but not definitive, models of reality
- Physics as a discipline advancing through experimentation followed by model identification and test
- Physics and mathematics as possible eye-opener, and ways to analyze things critically;
- Mathematics and physics as wide, mostly uncharted places where "communication and co-creation among distants" is the norm, rather than fight-for-status and the like.

In mathematics and physics there are specific fields which, on average, may exert a deep attraction on girls and more generaly "web thinkers". Among them:
- Graph and network theory (direct representation of any kind of relation among people/things/...)
- Discrete mathematics (where constructive, practically-oriented proofs are more common than conventional deductive processes)
- Mathematical biology and ecology (where the distance of "models" from "complex reality" is so evident)
- Micro-meteorology and micro-climatology (as studying directly connections among biosphere, atmosphere and geosphere)
- ...

The same field, for example classical mechanics, may be presented in ways more appealing to web thinkers too.

Many things can be made.

This solution, in fact not-so-reslutive in itself, is just the beginning of a tiny, lightweight collection of practical ideas which, applied, may make girls less afraid by something, I'm sure, they can do.

Before to close this introduction, let me add a bit of personal experience.

Despite the discrimination they may have suffered, in 1982 the mathematics course at University of Milan was mostly populated by young women (65%, as a defect estimate). If, more generally, you consider web thinkers the figure grows to something like an 80%, if not more.

Very much of these people had been actively encouraged to "follow their inclinations" and prefer a career in some caring professions (me included). But they did follow their own path.

At end, many of them survived the harsh selection, very often with good votes. And, this is more revealing, the final ratio of web thinkers to the supposedly more mathematically inclined "linear thinkers", remained as it was among freshmen - this strongly suggests being a web thinker would not prevent you (nor your pupils) from having a successful career in mathematics or physics.

Mauri

Comments

Maria Cuellar's picture

My dreams

Wow, Mauri. This article is amazing!! I have thought about these topics for so long, and so deeply, and every time I do this I end up more confused than I was before.

I studied Physics and Math in high school and college, and I was one of 5 women who graduated from Physics in my whole college. Also, I just took the Physics GRE test, a test required to go to American graduate school in Physics, and out of 40 people taking the test in a classroom I was the only woman. I also currently teach Physics and Math to high school students, and I definitely see more men than women studying in these fields.

The more I study Physics, the more I become a minority, and the more I love studying it. I like being challenged, and this field is so challenging for women, and in the US for minority women (I'm Latina), that i like it more and more, but it is difficult to find competition and discrimination in the field. I hope this does not stop me from achieving my dreams.

My mother told me about a book where a Physicist explores why women are so scarce in higher Physics education, and it happens that women end up missing human contact and get tired of the abstraction, which is related to what you mentioned about women liking real-world applications and discrete math. I hope this does not stop me from achieving my dreams.

This book has a list of women "who made original and important contributions to physics in the twentieth century," see http://www.amazon.com/Out-Shadows-Contributions-Twentieth-Century-Physic....

Thanks for writing this and making me think more about it. I'm glad someone on World Pulse has thought about this too!
Maria

Maria!

Thank so very much of your comment.

I'm always glad to discover someone else in deep love with physics and nature, and shares the same dreams to such a large extent.

What else, than encourage you to go on?

You feel alone, and I can say I understand you. In part because you are so (let's say) unusual. And in part, because the World is so wide we all, the frontierspeople, sooner or later find in underpopulated ares... One of our quest might then be "stay connected", instead of competing. This may help us as human beings, and science too (as I see, the more you specialize, the narrower your view, the less the final impact of your work).

The book you suggest me looks very interesting, at least as inspiring as your words are. I'll read it, sure.

Books on the subject of women (more generally, "humans") towards science are so scarce.
Sometimes, you find one serendipitously, read, and fall in love.

I'm on the third reading of http://www.amazon.com/Lifting-Veil-Feminine-Face-Science/dp/0877736561, and found it inspiring too. If you don't have read, I recommend you as an exchange.

And: I'm working on "section 2" of my contribution (and, would time and force endure, maybe 3, 4, ...). May we stay in connection on it? And, maybe, create something together?

A last question: is there any path of physics especially thrilling you?

Cheers

Mauri

jap21's picture

Amazing Maria

I know what it takes to study physics, so I admire you so much. Please start writing like Mauri. We would love to hear the voice of someone who is so knowledgeable about science, encouraging us and all the girls in Pulsewire (there is a big number of them indeed), to look at science in a different way.

As I told Mauri, maybe we could recruit some more women who would like to write about their experience with science in this community.

It would be awesome!

I always think that if I write and change the life of only one girl, then I am useful on earth. Imagine if there is a team writing about science here, and we change the lives of more than one girl... wouldn't that be awesome?

Let''s give it a try!

Hugs,

Jackie

Jacqueline Patiño FundActiva
Tarija - Bolivia
South America
www.jap21.wordpress.com

Jackie, Maria, Janice (and anyone interested),

that's so true! Recruiting! I wonder what it would happen, would the many people seeing world from a different perspective unite in a single (variegated) single big voice!

Jackie, you're so right. Changing the life of one is a wonderful step, an enduring change to the World, apparently so little. But then, why not of more?

This reminds me of a wonderful novel I'm read so many years ago, "The man who planted trees", by Jean Giono. Day after day, mr.Bouffier, a shepherd of whom no one ever realized existence, planted trees. With love, carefully selecting the better seeds, and placing them in tiny holes in the ground. And, decade after decade, quietly and relentlessly, he changed a desert in a garden... I wish these girls moved by science and mathematics are as our tiny seed - tiny, yet immensely big, and grandful, as any human being is.

Your idea is compelling, too. To the point I began to check among my friends, to see whether some of them may like to join.

And you're right, we may try ourselves, but help and involvement will made the real difference. I think girls need examples. Many examples, to balance the scant number of women in science. "Big names", who may support us and them with mind-opening stories both on nature and the quest of it. And, "little ones", who might say something about the "other side" of the problem, that is, how we, our children and people we love and respect did react to the way mathematics is teach and lived. Both big and ittle names may provide highlights on a point so human, I believe: why is Nature (and mathematics/physics) so necessary to our minds?

Definitely, we just have to begin.

Love,
Mauri

JaniceW's picture

Love this!

Mauri, la ringrazio molto per la tua storia! I have always loved math but moved away from studying the topic in my college years towards design. But in design, math contributes greatly in terms of proportion, scale and balance. Just as there is a connection between music (another passion) and mathematics. Musical pitch and a note's corresponding frequency are all based on mathematical relationships. It is often said that people who love math also love J.S. Bach as he made use of a number of formal mathematical patterns when he composed his majestic organ fugues.

Once girls realize how often math appears in everyday life, even in the configuration of petals in flowers, they will see how much more exciting and beautiful the world is. Thank for sharing this great article and I can't wait for sections 2, 3, 4 and 5!!

Mauri's picture

You're so welcome!

Janice, thank for your comment with even beginning and end in Italian! (This makes me very curious).

Mathematics is really cute, isn't it?

It seems to be so everywhere, and only in few cases we really know for sure "why"... And, is this "why" any less exciting? All is still there for us to explore and understand in some deep way (heart, eyes, all senses, and hand, together with rationality).

You mentioned the appearance of Fibonacci numbers in flower petals and that's so... beautiful (I know English only a bit, am trying to improve my vocabulary). And, have you noticed most children (and adults, me included) draw five petal flowers? They know nothing of Fibonacci numbers, maybe have even no concept of numbers themselves... Yet they "know the regularity". Who did ever teach them?

And, why "should" it be? I and a friend of mine tried to check in literature whether someone has devised some accepted explain. We didn't find it (our fault, quite sure - we did not try hard enough). An uncharted territory!

And, you mentioned Bach. I love his music, although at the level of an amateur listener. It conveys to me senses of urgency, or calm, or... And true, his scores seem "paintings" as you look notes following each others, in groups, meeting then later. You see a visual rhythm. And feel the emotions flowing meanwhile. All terse, and so involving in the same time.

And: what about regularity and chaos in life itself? Say, the part of a basal temperature strip one usually don't care of (and there you sense the feeling of some constantly-self-reconfiguring complex mechanism, yielding patters of variation so different from phase to phase). Or the mysterious seven-year mass appearance of certain insects, who then seem to vanish later on.

I feel is a pity mathematics is not (also) considered a humanistic field, a form of art. It's not contradictory with being a science. May this help, too, to encourage talented people to pursue it?

Now, as a professional in environmental sciences with an inclination to geology, my time for "doing" mathematics has ended. You can be really creative in that field when you are young. (Incidentally, my career ended much before when, at a congress where I presented a work with a very long title. When asked why I did all that work, I answered "Oh, because I enjoyed it aesthetically!". Applause (justified, I imagine, by all people preceding my presentation trying to sell something). The chairman complimented with me. But my boss was not as impressed, and so...

But still I stay informed, and see how many people are actively moved away of it.

Janice, I'm happy you live in New Zealand. I never visited your land, but as far as I know it's a paradise. A sort of Southern-Hemisphere-Italy, with a lot uncontaminated nature. I'm curious to know of it from your words. And who knows, would I decide to plan a travel, why not doing it long?

Cheers,

Mauri

jap21's picture

Hi Mauri

You can't get rid of me. I am your big fan! I love your article, as it touches a part of the story of girls that I would like to work on: math acquisition.

When my daughter was in first grade, through fifth, I taught her math. Her father is a mathmatics man, but would make her cry when teaching her. So I took over. And she got straight A plus! (proud mama).

When I was teaching her, I realized she needed some incentive, so I invited other girls, from less priviledeged backgrounds, so they would study with her, and so that she would share some time with them. It was miraculous. She ended up knowing more, and the girls ended up having better grades!

Sometimes men don't have the patience to teach girls. And there are female teachers who also acquire a very masculine way of teaching math. Girls resent this. I hope more mamas realize this and start teaching girls themselves. It is a lot of fun and it works a lot better.

By the way, math is everwhere. Girls I teach always say "Why should I learn something I will never use?" And I answer "Because math is everywhere. You just don't realize. Math is what forms your criteria. Without criteria, you become a toy in the hands of blowing winds".

Keep writing about this. I love reading you!

Hugs,

Jackie

Jacqueline Patiño FundActiva
Tarija - Bolivia
South America
www.jap21.wordpress.com

Mauri's picture

You're so nice - and so great!

Jackie, your reply is a heart-warming encouragement. I wasn't sure I had anything useful to say...

And, what a splendid thing you made!

True, isn't it? Mathematics looks me a sort of lens you can adapt, to see glances of world. Something definitely no human being should be deprived.

And also, it conveys so a lot of unnecessary stereotypes. I appreciate your pointing out so many teachers, many women included, take on a "masculine" way. It's so true!

Is a "female science" needed? Or, more simply, a "human science"? (Which is after all the very same)

For teachers this might be a dilemma. I remember my sciences teacher in high school, a wonderful lady with strong believes (to whom I confess I owe so very much - she was a real mind opener; would like to reconnect to her but, I lost her traces) had her own difficulties with the Italian ministerial program of year 4, in which meteorology was presented in a so deadly boring and lifeless way no one sane of mind would remain awake...

Jackie, I have a question. I see your passion and competence. Would you like to add your voice to mine on this subject? Your own experience, and suggestions, are so much important. I can't have children on my own, and all my direct experiences are occasional, related to courses in which time is scant and opportunities for long-lasting connection with students too rare. Occasional and very "intellective", from so afar! But you!

May say us all how you did solve your part of the problem, aren't you?

A big hug.

(I'm imagining your daughter meanwhile, looking attentively towards some mysterious point, and wondering "But, why...?" - A strong image! Thank you again).

Mauri

jap21's picture

Hi Mauri

Thanks for the compliments! As you said to María, I also think women who understand math should get together with the purpose of making math available to all women, especially to girls.

In this sense, I am more than willing to unite my voice to yours in this quest. You could be the leader of the "Math Promotion Gals" or something like that, and give us a clue on what to write on let's say, every month, and we could all post somethng about it, (I am thinking about you, Maria Cuellar and myself initially), so that we could reach the community in different ways, over the same point.

So, keep talking to other women who would also be interested!

I will be waiting for the first theme to write about.

Hugs,

Jackie

Jacqueline Patiño FundActiva
Tarija - Bolivia
South America
www.jap21.wordpress.com

Mauri's picture

Splendid idea!

Hi Jackie!

Thank of your helpfulness! Your idea is really nice, cute and possibly useful.

Yes, we may do!

I'll ask Maria more specifically right now (guess I have to do with a private message). And, check whether someone else wants to add. Anyone is so welcome!

In the moment I'm thinking to specific examples, of little dimension. On suggestion by Janice I'm doing them more "reader-friendly" (my term - sorry so sloppy ;-) ). I've also moved them to my journal, but realize we may need some shared space, for us to post in a same place. In the next days I'll investigate on "Groups", and other possibilities Pulsewire offers.

Entire realms are uncovered! Say: how to use time respectfully? But, let us think, so many are the possibilities... May we all elaborate on possible titles and subjects, peer-to-peer style?

Hugs, an thanks.

This "is" the birth of "Math Promotion Gals"! A great day.

Mauri

JaniceW's picture

Love this conversation

You should definitely explore the idea of forming a group. Maria Cuellar (whose profile is below) was one of five women out of 350 people who graduated from Physics in her college. She is very interested in Math and Physics (her undergraduate thesis was about gravitational lensing and dark matter), but she wants to spend some time working for social justice and equality. But she also adds that she wants to provide valuable science education for those who can't easily get it and I want to fight for social equality.

http://www.worldpulsemagazine.com/user/2368

This will be a most powerful group. I can't wait to hear what you name it!

Mauri's picture

Thank of your support!

Sure, Janice, Maria is a special person!

It's not so simple to find a committed and exceptional physicist so lovely and humane.

She's the perfect counterexample a physicist or mathematician must necessarily "unwomanly". And, a concentrate of life! Really, a "must-be-part".

And you, Janice? I know you have little time, but, as you are interested in this subject as we are, why not joining yourself?

Cheers,

Mauri

Maria Cuellar's picture

Let's start a group!

Mauri and Jackie,

Ok! Let's start this group! I'll create it and we can all start posting our ideas. I'll send you all a notification about where to find it.
This is so exciting!

Maria

Mauri's picture

Definitely, we have!

Maria, Jackie, this is a reply to both.

It's time to go practical, and here the help of someone owning a fresh and confident digital citizenship (Maria, I'm thinking to you specifically in this moment) can greatly help.

I agree with you Maria , as you pointed out in your message the group should have a "name" and a "description".

I thought a lot, and in the moment I can say I love Jackie's name, "Math Support Gals". It seems to me a sort of recursive effect, these three words conveying so many interpretations. Among these:
- That of people supporting gals on math
- Also, of gals supporting someone in math
- But even, that math supports gals

As you see, all of them are revealing of one aspect of the problem.

I stay open to other ideas (and still am generating randomy other possibilities).

About the group mission, as I said privately I have an opinion:

"To identify girl-friendly subjects, points of view and applications of physics and mathematics, which may allow them to find the motivation to invest time and emotional energy in their development as science-savvy people".

Jus an opinion, let's explore it and others freely.

Also as an opinion, physics and maths need not to be "made simple". They are difficult. But if you show they are incredibly fascinating, you may push them to progress.

Important thing: girls interested in mathematics and physics should be validated as women. Hard science is often perceived as "unfeminine", but as I've seen this is deeply false. Even more, there exist areas of scientific knowledge where having a "female mind" may be of great advantage. So, the group might spend some of its time in myth-dispelling and confidence-building.

And, last, we may think big! (Why not? It costs so nothing...). My dream is we say may seep at least in part in teaching practices and programs, laws, institutions, ... That is, infiltrating culture. This will involve dialogue and partnership (and that's deeply ethical - our focus is on gals as "the similar understands the similar", but guys have their own specific problems; and there are problems so universal we should acknowledge them, and we often don't ;-) ).

Just subjective opinions. Yours are much welcome - a synthesis is needed, and your experience extends in areas so wonderfully similar.and-different...

Hugs,
Mauri

Leila's picture

great mauri,

It is really great talking about maths and physics,those are the things we should talk about. every career has got everything to d with maths.Maths is never hard,it is only when you think so.I was an enemy to maths and physics but now i am one of the best in my class.hope you will changge your attitude too.

Mauri's picture

Leila, I wish so many love life as you do!

You're so right, learning is essential - being able doing something well is the only power no one will ever take away from you!

And I'm so glad you have now discovered how fascinating, and not only useful, can math and physics be.

I'm very interested to you experience in this field, as a student: what made you change idea on these subjects?

(I have a little secret to share with you. On my school days, I had the incredible luck to go high school. But there my first contact with mathematics was scaring - I may try saying my teacher was not so passionate, but that's not really true: it was me, who didn't understand what mathematics was useful for. Then, on second year, a new sciences teacher entered, and things changed. She was keen showing applications of mathematics and physics to biology (the subject I then loved most). Since then, I continued with enthusiasm. But would have not be for her effort with me, I'm not sure. Now I'm so sorry: I tried to trace this wonderful teacher, but was not able).

Love
Mauri

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