Campus News

UB Summer Math Program aims to bridge gender gap

By CHARLES ANZALONE

Published August 30, 2019

“It is at the middle school level that female students turn their attention away from mathematics. This gender gap and gender differences in mathematic attitude and skills continue to grow during high school.”
Ji-Won Son, associate professor and director
Summer Math Program

The girls are laughing, smiling, jockeying for position along a line of masking tape on the floor, gently bumping up against the three teachers in their classroom at Enterprise Charter School in downtown Buffalo.

It’s all part of the Human Number Line, a featured activity in UB’s Summer Math Program. The middle school-aged girls — each wearing a signature blue Summer Math Program T-shirt and personalized lanyard — place themselves along the line of tape in the proper order of decimals and fractions.

It’s clear they’re having a ball. What is also clear: This is not their parents’ summer math class.

It is, however, summer math according to Ji-Won Son. Son — the Graduate School of Education faculty member and nationally respected expert in math education whose command of current math education research matches her ability to connect with her young students — presented her second Summer Math Program Aug. 12-16.

Once again, the mission was ambitious: Make math for girls “exciting, beautiful and useful,” as Son has promised. Anyone fortunate enough to be around to watch the program in action on its Wednesday Hump Day would agree: The Graduate School of Education’s Summer Math Program lives up to the hype.

“We really strive to make sure the girls are not sedative, that they’re not just working on worksheets and doing algorithms or a process to get to an answer,” said Jeri Diletti, assistant program director of the Summer Math Program who teaches math at Akron High School, and is an adjunct math professor in the GSE.

“We really want the girls up and moving, and really even just getting their bodies involved in the activities. We want them having fun, laughing, working with other girls. A lot of times the girls don’t know each other. They’re not all necessarily coming from the same location, so we’re also building relationships with them and between the girls as well.”

Bridging the gender gap

There is sound pedagogy behind the Summer Math Program, and a strong intention to fulfill a cultural and gender deficiency. It’s specifically aimed at girls entering grades five to eight looking to improve their math skills. This is when girls have traditionally lost ground to their male counterparts, Son explained.

“From all distances, education looks pretty gender-equal,” said Son, associate professor of mathematics education in the Department of Learning and Instruction, who started the program in 2017.

“But if you look closely, you can see boys and girls are treated differently from a very young age in terms of expectations that are directed at them. Research shows that there is no gender gap at kindergarten when they just started their school experiences, but some gender gap and gender differences in mathematic attitude and skill appear during elementary.

“And it is at the middle school level that female students turn their attention away from mathematics. This gender gap and gender differences in mathematic attitude and skills continue to grow during high school.”

Son said studies show that the way female students and male students learn mathematics is different. “Female students do better when they are collaborating and working together,” she said. “In contrast, male students are more competitive, and they do better by doing independent work. So our program emphasizes more collaborations and project-based learning, and group activity.”

Clearly, the Summer Math Program had a mission to make math fun, active and engaging, as well as academically useful for the 47 girls enrolled this year. And clearly, based on the activities in these mid-week sessions, it was math delivered as promised.

Solving problems by leaving their seats

The Human Number Line assigns a fraction or decimal to each of the five girls in a class run by Diletti. The students and teachers then try to arrange themselves in the proper order, based on their ability to convert and compare the numbers.

That soon led to the scene described above, with the girls directing each other or their instructors with accompanying fractions in appropriate order, and then “schooching” each in the appropriate place on the Human Number Line.

Anirhutha Senthil Kumar, with the assigned fraction 2/7, correctly took her place in the spot below Jessica Park, who had 7/21.

“How did you know you were bigger than Ani?” Diletti asked Park.

Because 7/21 is equal to one-third,” said Park, who will be entering fifth grade at Transit Middle School in East Amherst.

“Awesome,” said Diletti. “I’m going to write that down.”

“What did you do, Ani?” Diletti asked Kumar, also about to enter fifth grade at Transit Middle.

“Common denominator,” Kumar answered quickly. She needed to convert her 2/7 fraction to one with 21 as denominator.

“I multiplied both of the numbers by three, which equals 6/21,” she said.

“So 6/21 is less than 7/21,” Diletti told the class, and that correctly determined where the girls would stand in the Human Number Line.

Math tied to the real world

Down the hallway is Window Shopping, this time for seventh-graders. It’s an activity led by Christina McCarthy, a graduate student in GSE’s adolescent mathematics program. Students were given paper money and then visited displays with various items — Disney World for a week, a jet ski, a puppy and a kitten — all with prices and a discount percentage. They needed to figure out the discounted price before they could spend their money.

“We had to figure out the discounts and make sure we had enough money to pay for the items,” said Paige Kerr, who will be going into seventh grade at Heim Middle School in the Williamsville School District. “I bought a jet ski, a safari trip and a pool.”

The activity was vintage UB Summer Math: hands-on, fun and clearly tied to the real world.

“Math is everywhere,” Son said. “They do not realize where they use mathematics.”

Son made it clear the Summer Math Program benefits the teachers as well as students. There is extensive teacher planning and preparation, including test runs on their Summer Math Program lessons with each other before the camp begins.

“Our team of teachers has worked very hard to provide high-quality, creative and engaging activities,” she said. “Students work through real-world problems, games and activities to explore mathematics.

“These methods bring life to the mathematics and help reveal the beauty and excitement of mathematics to kids. How do I know? I’ve witnessed it all week: the excitement in our students’ voices, the motivation to try solve math problems using various methods, and the hard work spent working on their final projects.”

It’s mostly about the fun

As for the girls, they can’t say enough good things about their camp, both on and off camera

In the end, for the girls, it’s mostly about the fun.

“Teachers are kind and they make a lot of jokes, and they all make us laugh,” said Kumar. “I thought this would be like school. But it’s like home and like Mom and Dad teaching.”

Park unabashedly brightened up when asked why she liked math.

“Because it requires you to think outside the box,” she said. “Kind of think of different ways about how to solve problems and how it helps us.”

Lauren Truman, who will enter sixth grade this fall at Amherst Middle School, said the program is “helping me understand you can use math in the real world.”

“If I wanted to be a baker, I could use 2/3 cup of flour, or 4/5 cup of butter, and then I could make the right cake, so it can come out right.”