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Getting girls to do the math at UTSC

Girls take part in an experiment at last year's Math in Motion event

A quick glance around the lecture hall of many university-level math and science classes confirms the cliché: most of the faces staring back are male.

That’s why women from the academic and corporate world created Math in Motion … Girls in Gear! The hands-on math conference hosted by UTSC is geared toward inspiring girls in Grade 9 to pursue mathematics at the university level. 

This year’s keynote address will be delivered by UTSC Associate Professor Bianca Schroeder from the department of computer and mathematical sciences. The Canada Research Chair and Sloan Fellow spoke to writer Don Campbell about being a mentor and the importance of inspiring young women to pursue mathematics.  

What message do you try to get across to young women about studying math at the university level?
I mostly try to dispel myths some may have about studying math or even about the people who are in math-related fields. The fact we’re ordinary people can sometimes be lost on young people. They may also be intimidated about math or they may not grasp the potential in having math skills.  

Many view math and computer science as geeky, so I try to dispel these stereotypes. It’s also important to let them know about the practical uses of math and that there’s a world of exciting opportunities and satisfying careers available to those who pursue it. One example I like using is how modern pop music is processed using recording software that relies on mathematical principles to work. There are many of these exciting real-world examples that I like to convey.  

Why is this event important? 
I think it’s very important on many levels. What I like about this conference is the interactive component that allows them to work with their peers to solve a mathematical problem by designing a project. It shows that math can be fun and useful. 

This conference is also a means to empower young women by showing they are capable of pursuing mathematics at a higher level. It’s also a place for young women to meet with professionals who use their math skills in the real world. I think having a mentor can be a powerful experience for these girls.

Did you have a female mentor when you were in university or growing up? 
No. In fact, when I was an undergraduate in Germany during the 1990s, there were only three women out of a class of 200. There wasn’t a single female professor in the department. I think having a female mentor would have been tremendously helpful. Being a mentor to young women who may be thinking of pursuing mathematics in general or computer science specifically is something I find very enjoyable and satisfying.

What do you think can be done to increase the number of women in math-related programs?
I think a conference like this helps because we are working with girls in Grade 9. If you get them at that age they can take the necessary prerequisites for university programs so they don’t miss the boat. Again, showing them the opportunities that exist for math graduates is also very important. It’s not always easy to convey statistics about where the job prospects in the economy exist, but it can be very empowering to show young women that there are successful women in various fields with degrees in math, engineering and computer science.