Introductory Activities

Why start single gender math clubs?

Before starting math clubs we collect data about the number of famous men and women students can identify, and about students' images of mathematicians. Using our own classroom data as a base for discussing gender expectations helps to keep the conversation safe for students. It also provides a context for describing why we think it is important to create math clubs. Math clubs are a place where we can explicitly communicate our high expectations for both girls and boys in mathematics.

We ask students to:

1) draw a picture of a typical mathematician including their race, gender and what they are doing. In some classrooms students need support in understanding what race means.
2) take 3 minutes to write down all the famous men you can think of excluding sports people and entertainers. After three minutes is up, ask students to make another list of famous women.

Discussion questions (as applicable):

1) Why do you think most of you drew a man? Why are many of the women that you drew teachers?
2) Why do you think most of you had an easy time coming up with famous men, but a hard time coming up with famous women?
3) Do you think this is a problem?
4) What message is society giving you about what is appropriate for men and women to be doing?
5) Why is it important for girls to think that mathematicians can be women?
6) What women do you know who are breaking traditional barriers in the jobs they are taking?

Discussing pictures of typical mathematicians:

Usually we learn that students have very little knowledge about what mathematicians do. Many of their drawings show teachers or, as one student put it, "crazy scientists with big hair." We introduce the idea that we will partner with local businesses to learn about how people in the community use mathematics in their jobs. Students are VERY interested in these community partnerships and exult in learning about practical applications for the mathematics they are doing in school. Often business partners can supply strong female role models who shift both girls and boys perspectives about what is possible.

Why is it difficult to identify famous women?
It has not been unusual for fifth graders to have a difficult time identifying any famous women. Many students have been articulate about the history of gender bias in our country and how things are changing for the better. Some students will ask why they don't learn more about famous women in school. Others will say there are no famous women.

In every classroom different issues come up. For example in one fifth grade class the discussion revealed that every girl in the class had at least one woman in her life breaking traditional barriers. Interestingly, the boys in the class had less experience with non-traditional female role models. More than half of the girls knew women who used power tools, but none of the boys did. We asked why this might be true. As the discussion evolved it became clear that girls' parents were making conscious efforts to expose them to the advances women have made, however, this was not explicit in most boys' homes. All students were surprised by this. In general third, fourth and fifth grade boys and girls have been extremely open and interested in talking about gender issues. We discuss both the economic and the social justice which comes for girls when they pursue mathematics training. We also discuss the advantages for boys when girls have the training to be equal partners. Everyone has more choices/more flexibility to lead rich lives. Boys invariably volunteer that they want to contribute to creating an equitable environment in math class.

last modified July 1997
© Copyright 1997 TERC, All Rights Reserved.