Thursday, February 23, 2017

Kickstart This! African American Women Mathematicians Activity Book

Like many of you, I saw the film Hidden Figures and cheered and cried with the amazing women whose stories had been shamefully neglected for far too long. As someone with more than a passing interest in women's history, I was also more than a little frustrated and disappointed that the stories of these women and others weren't routinely taught in school when I was a kid. Heck, they haven't been taught in most schools in the nearly-30 years since I graduated.

I sometimes wonder if learning about the endeavors of women in math and science would have changed the career trajectories of some of my classmates. Would more of us have actually considered a career in STEM? Would we have stuck with science and math even when it got "hard?" It's difficult to tell. If nothing else, learning about the contributions of these women and others who came before them would have given us a richer understanding of the complex history of the eras in which they lived.

Over the last couple of years, there has been a concerted effort to tell the stories of important women in history whose work has overlooked, if not completely dismissed, for decades or even centuries. Most of the women newly-celebrated worked in the fields of medicine or science, with only a few representing mathematics, and even fewer still were African American women.

Until now, that is. Dr. Shelly Jones is committed to sharing the stories of these math pioneers in her work with students and teachers around the country. As someone who works with a diverse population, she knows the importance of creating a more accurate and representative picture of influential mathematicians, which was more than just a bunch of white men with a smattering of white women.

So, as you can imagine I was thrilled to learn about her African American Women Mathematicians Activity Book. It looks like a fun activity book for middle-grade students, including puzzles that will encourage students to learn more about these women's lives and work. This is an especially important age when it comes to determining whether a student with pursue a career in STEM, and it's when the interest in math peaks for many girls. Perhaps by showing them examples of smart women who did great work, more will be inspired to follow in their footsteps.

The project is already 66% (that's 2/3rds in fractions) funded, with only a week left, but it still needs your help to get off the ground. Dr. Jones was kind enough to answer a few of my questions about her work in teaching mathematics as well as explaining the importance of the African American Women Mathematicians Activity Book.

SRPS: First, can you tell us a little about yourself? What's your background? What inspires you?

SJ: Currently, I am an Associate Professor of Mathematics Education at Central Connecticut State University (CCSU) in New Britain, Connecticut. I teach undergraduate mathematics content and methods courses for pre-service teachers as well as graduate level mathematics content, curriculum and STEM courses for practicing teachers. I am interested in and conduct research on culturally relevant mathematics, making mathematics and music connections, and the effects of college students’ attitudes and beliefs about mathematics on their success in college.

Before CCSU, I was a Mathematics Teacher and then Supervisor in three Connecticut K-12 school districts and then the Assistant Director for Mathematics at The Project to Increase Mastery of Mathematics and Science (PIMMS) at Wesleyan University. I have been an educator for over 25 years.

I serve the mathematics education community by presenting at conferences at the local and national levels. I also provide mathematics professional development in K-12 school districts around the country. I am member and volunteer of the Benjamin Banneker Association, a national organization who advocates for the excellence in teaching and learning for African American children. I am a contributing author of a book entitled, The Brilliance of Black Children in Mathematics: Beyond the Numbers and Toward a New Discourse. Recently I completed a study on Using Culturally Relevant Cognitively Demanding Mathematics Tasks in Classrooms in the United States and Abroad. I worked with teachers from the United States, Brazil, Ecuador, and Bermuda.

I have two daughters ages 17 and 23.

SRPS: What motivated you to dedicate your life to math pedagogy -- instructing teachers how to teach math?

SJ: I began my career as a computer programmer but didn't like the isolation of creating and troubleshooting programs. I began to train people on the job and found that I really enjoyed teaching. I always hear people say, "I'm not good at math." I want to change that narrative. I think people are better at math than they think. They are just not good at "school" math. We must change what we consider is math. It is so much more than just symbol manipulation and following mathematical procedures. It is a way of thinking that includes patterns and logic.

SRPS: One of the questions I hear pretty often from school-aged kids is "When will I ever use this in real life?" Is this because students don't see the relevance of math in their lives?

SJ: Yes, students and even some adults don’t see the relevance of mathematics because they don't see the connection to real life. It is up to teachers to help students see the connection between "school" math and real-life math. Much of what we do in real life is mathematical. For example, we estimate time, recipes, and budgets. We do scheduling, plan trips, calculate percentages, use spatial reasoning to decorate rooms and create art. We even use math (fractions) to read music and tune musical instruments. This is just to name a few. The key is to point this out to students when appropriate and to use real-life scenarios as much as possible in our mathematics curriculum.

SRPS: What is the African American Women Mathematicians Activity Book?

SJ: This activity book is being created to honor the important work, accomplishments and everyday lives of African American Women Mathematicians. Although the book is geared to children in grades 3 – 8 it is appropriate for all ages. All of the featured mathematicians will have a profile sketch and a short biography followed by an activity page displaying their math interest or a hobby they enjoy. For example, Evelyn Boyd Granville participated on a team that created computer software for NASA's Project Vanguard and Project Mercury space programs. Her activity page will include a coloring page of a sketch of the Mercury space craft. Whether at home or school, children will enjoy uncovering mathematician's names through word searches, unscrambling math vocabulary words, solving equations to decode a mathematics fact, answering math history trivia to complete a crossword puzzle, and using their math brain to figure out a magic square. The book will also include some coloring pages and an eye spy page where students will locate hidden mathematical objects.

SRPS: There is a distinct lack of African American women in math and science fields, and several prominent physicists -- like Jedidah Isler & Chanda Prescod-Weinstein -- are calling attention to that. Many people talk about the "broken tech pipeline." How do we encourage more girls to even consider a career in math?

SJ: Whenever possible we must provide opportunities for girls and young women to participate in STEM activities. We must encourage them to "try it!" Having role models is another important aspect of getting more girls into STEM fields. My university sponsors a Girls in STEM Day for high school aged girls. In addition, I coordinate an annual CAMPY-on-Campus event at my university. CAMPY is the Connecticut Association of Mathematically Precocious Youth. Every year we host over 100 middle school students of which many are girls. The students spend a full day participating in STEM activities. They also receive a cool mathematics related t-shirt. These types of events are needed to spark students interest in STEM fields.

SRPS: How did you decide which female mathematicians from history to include?

SJ: The activity book will start with the "firsts" African American women to receive doctorate degrees in mathematics. They are Euphemia Lofton Haynes, Evelyn Boyd Granville, Marjorie Lee Brown, Argelia Velez-Rodriguez, Gloria Conyers Hewitt, and Sadie Gasaway. I will also feature more current mathematicians such as Etta Zuber Falconer and Genevieve Knight. Dr. Falconer was a pioneer of the computer science program at Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia. Dr. Knight was one of the founding members of the Benjamin Banneker Association, Incorporated, an affiliate organization of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM). So far, I have 20 women; however, as I work on this project, I am finding more and more women to include. I will make a final decision at the end of my Kickstarter campaign. I was asked to include some young women mathematicians and so I am looking for those women now.

Check it out: African American Women Mathematicians Activity Book

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