On the making of a girl nerd
Today I want to discuss the process by which girls become math and cs nerds.
I could be tempted to talk primarily about my own story, since I’m a huge nerd. And I will talk about my story, but my focus is going to be on the girls of my generation who could have become nerds but didn’t. I’m hoping we can learn some lessons so that future generations will have more nerd girls.
Both my parents are nerds. My mother has a Ph.D. in applied math and my father has a Ph.D. in pure math. Moreover, I was on the math team in high school, found out about a math camp, and went to it for two summers, with the full support of my family.
I want to go over these details again, because I want to point out that they gave me an enormous advantage to becoming a successful nerd.
First, my parents being nerds: I have found an amazing correlation between women with math Ph.D.’s and women whose fathers are mathematicians. I don’t think this is random- indeed I think it means two things. First, that girls with mathematician dads have an easy time imagining themselves as mathematicians (and an even easier time if their mom is too). Second, that girls without mathematician dads don’t. Otherwise you wouldn’t be able to explain the statistics I have.
Second, the math camp experience. I went to math camp in spite of it being an extremely uncool summer endeavor, according to my classmates at school. Yet I didn’t care, and went anyway, mostly because I was already a complete outsider, a fat girl on the math team (but a mathbabe when I got there!).
Two things about this. First, most smart girls around me in Lexington High School, and there were a lot of them, would not have been willing to go to math camp and ruin their reputations. Most of them were relatively popular, and wanted to keep it that way. I had nothing to lose in that aspect and knew it. This kind of thinking may seem silly to us as grownups but seemed like life or death choices then.
Second, the advantage having been to math camp gave me when I got to college was phenomenal. I knew how to prove things by induction, by contradiction, and using the pigeon-hole principle. I knew basic group theory, graph theory, and real analysis. This gave me a jump-start in all of my undergrad math major classes. I was an elite, and what I could do seemed like magic to the kids who were math majors who didn’t know that stuff.
The thing about math is that people get into this mindset about being good at it: they think that you either have it or you don’t (see this post for more on the mindset). So the experience for the other kids, boys and girls, going to an algebra class and sitting next to me and a few other kids from math camp backgrounds was understandably intimidating and made them think they couldn’t compete. But I believe that, considering the social constructs and the kind of confidence girls and boys are trained to have (or not have), it was particularly daunting for other girls to see their competition in a small group of elite nerds who already knew all the answers.
I’m not advocating closing math camps. In fact, I am going back to teach at my high school math camp in July for three weeks (woohoo!). What I am advocating is thinking seriously about the selection process for young nerds and how much it weeds out girls. We can do better.
For example, Harvey Mudd is doing better by careful thought and attention to the issue. Namely, they are changing the introduction to programming class to be more appealing for non-math-or-cs-camp nerds. From the New York Times article:
Known as CS 5, the course focused on hard-core programming, appealing to a particular kind of student — young men, already seasoned programmers, who dominated the class. This only reinforced the women’s sense that computer science was for geeky know-it-alls.
“Most of the female students were unwilling to go on in computer science because of the stereotypes they had grown up with,” said Zachary Dodds, a computer scientist at Mudd. “We realized we were helping perpetuate that by teaching such a standard course.”
To reduce the intimidation factor, the course was divided into two sections — “gold,” for those with no prior experience, and “black” for everyone else. Java, a notoriously opaque programming language, was replaced by a more accessible language called Python. And the focus of the course changed to computational approaches to solving problems across science.
This sounds like a brilliant idea, and one that we should all consider (and python rocks!). It is reminiscent of the “Introduction to Proofs” class which I started with Karen Edwards and Sara Robinson in 1993 at UC Berkeley as an undergrad and which is still going, as well as the class I started at in 2006 at Barnard College, which is also still going. The dual goals of such a class are to teach basic proof techniques to people interested in the major (who probably didn’t go to math camp) and to show people that being able to prove things isn’t magic, it just takes practice and knowing techniques.
Let’s get more campuses across the country to think about all the math and cs nerds they are missing out on by teaching the same old math (or cs) major classes every year. This is a curriculum change that is easy, fun to teach, and completely worthwhile.