The lack of women in mathematics can feel like an impossibly big issue to tackle, but there is extensive research suggesting why women self-select out of math: girls often lack confidence in their mathematical abilities, don’t get the same encouragement as their male peers, and don’t see themselves represented among mathematicians.
In 2016, Francesca Bernardi and Katrina Morgan founded Girls Talk Math to address these issues with a mathematics curriculum and media component. To date, more than 150 Girls Talk Math campers have written and released 45 podcast episodes, each about a mathematician or a scientist from an underrepresented group.
I am proud to be featured on the Girls Talk Math podcast. It’s mind-blowing to hear my story told by these students in their words. The campers’ thoughtful questions reminded me of what it was like to be a teenager, with no idea about what my future career and life might look like.
I’ve spoken regularly about the information security talent shortage and wrote a three-part series for RSAC on attracting, retaining and growing talent. Many commendable initiatives seek to mitigate today’s gender gap, but most are skills-based programs to address the immediate disparity in the workforce. As the talent shortage widens, we should be more forward-thinking. Engaging with young people will plant the seeds for tomorrow’s success.
I believe it’s absolutely critical for us to engage young learners. We can’t only be focused on fixing the current skills shortage—we must invest in future generations. Girls Talk Math is one such program that is succeeding.
What is it about the Girls Talk Math program that makes it so effective?
#1 Start with Natural Affinity and Curiosity
Advanced mathematics is inherently difficult to learn, so being successful in it requires having confidence in one’s own ability to get through challenging material. Girls Talk Math strives to not recruit the students who have already distinguished themselves as the top 10% in their local high school. It also welcomes those who find mathematics and STEM interesting but may not have found a way to excel in these subjects quite yet, at least in their own perception.
#2 Team Up and Do What’s Hard
Girls Talk Math teaches using an inquiry-based learning framework. As Co-Director, Gracie Conte explains that students “focus on the quality of learning and not the quantity of material.” Instead of lectures, students work on advanced-level problem sets and write blog posts on what they learned. The framework guides students through complex mathematics and helps them to build their own understanding of the material. This way of learning feels new for most of the campers, adding a level of difficulty; all students struggle with the curriculum at some point. But the campers work together, ask for guidance and ultimately learn some very advanced math. It is really empowering for these students to struggle with their peers through problems and come out the other end understanding something that at first seemed incomprehensible and confusing.
#3 Talk About It
The Girls Talk Math Directors recognize the importance of not only being able to do difficult math problems, but to effectively communicate mathematical concepts and stories in both written and verbal form. The pairing of a problem-set driven curriculum with the Girls Talk Math blog and podcast enables students to approach mathematics in a way that’s relevant to the real world and their future careers. The result is a multidimensional effect on the campers, as they learn about mathematicians and scientists and may begin to see themselves in similar roles in the future. Co-Director Samantha Moore shares, “My biggest goal in Girls Talk Math is to provide the campers with role models who look like them, who understand their experiences, and whose successes can encourage the girls to follow their passions in STEM. I also want to provide campers with an understanding of the struggles they may face in their STEM journeys and tools that they can use to face these struggles.”
What’s next for Girls Talk Math?
Research suggests that casual exposure to STEM has a cascading influence on girls. Early experiences with STEM—even as early as elementary school—can foster an enduring interest in science. It’s something I’ve thought a lot about with my own daughter, who is four years old. I try to expose her regularly to my work. She doesn’t need to learn quantum computing right now—but I believe seeing that women can be leaders in STEM will fuel her curiosity when she reaches school.
Girls Talk Math is a program that has always been accessible to students regardless of income (camp is free for all attendees). The Program Directors wanted to create an educational opportunity available to students of all socioeconomic backgrounds. Due to its success, Girls Talk Math has now branched out to the University of Maryland and the University of California at Los Angeles.