Mathematics is more important than ever before to increase opportunities for girls and women in STEM.
Our current system often restricts access and opportunity to girls and women in STEM. There is work to do. Now, more than ever before, we need K-12 mathematics teaching and learning to focus its energy on increasing opportunities and access for more students, for all students, and especially for all girls and women.
For too many and for far too long, our system has been structured to inhibit progress and not to open pathways. Engaging girls and women in mathematics based on sense-making, understanding, and application offers opportunities for them to see their strengths and abilities and use them to understand and make sense of their world — to reason and problem solve — all of which are foundational practices in STEM. Engaging and rigorous mathematics, with a focus on sense making, sharing one’s thinking, and critiquing the reasoning of others, provides a space for their voices to grow and strengthen and cultivates a belief in belonging in mathematics and in STEM fields. It strengthens their mathematics identity and supports them in seeing themselves in this space.
Role models and opportunities to engage with those in the STEM community, as well as experiencing success in mathematics themselves, are critical. A goal should be for students to leave K-12 and move to post-secondary study or careers seeing themselves as doers and users of math, competent and capable to lead in STEM fields. Through “Catalyzing Change,” the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) continues to provide leadership and guidance towards systemic changes at all levels, with one of the goals being providing all students access to mathematics and the opportunities it affords.
Empowering girls through mathematics
Mathematics that is relevant and purposeful is empowering for women and girls. Mathematics is an essential tool to make sense of our world. A world filled with data and quantifiable relationships and connections is the context to answer the age-old question, “why do we need to learn math?”
Our collective goal is to support students’ ability to look at data, assess its validity, understand the various relationships and questions related to the context, and use mathematics to explore and make sense of what is going on.
These tenets also serve them well in STEM. Along with discipline-specific understanding and processes across the other STEM fields, students’ strong mathematics foundation provides the language and connecting concepts to excel in a STEM field as well as to connect across fields in integrative STEM. A coordinated set of STEM tools and lenses increase questioning and helps students make sense of STEM-related topics in their daily lives. They are equipped to use mathematical concepts to make connections both between and within STEM fields and connections to their world. When they do this, they make the transition from a receiver of mathematics to a user and doer of mathematics.
Empowering every student, especially those our system has been less supportive of, to see themselves as competent and capable of using and applying mathematics is a pathway into STEM fields.