The Hechinger Report covered a recent survey that polled 9,000 students from 130 colleges to try to understand which factors lead students who are talented in math to pursue quantitative majors.
Self-confidence was traditionally identified as the key motivator for someone to consider herself a “math person,” but this research found that two other factors are correlated more strongly with developing such an identity.
One is recognition from others: A student is more inclined to major in a STEM field when family members, friends, and teachers consider her as a “math person.” Additionally, getting an A wasn’t necessarily enough to make a student consider a quantitative academic path. Instead, students had to feel genuinely enthusiastic about math.
So, what can parents and teachers do to get talented math students to consider a career in STEM? Consider these strategies:
1. Help students make connections.
Instead of lecturing students about math, set up open-ended scenarios in which students can use their own knowledge about the subject to make connections. When students feel they are able to use their curiosity to gain new insight, they will likely be more interested in continuing to use related knowledge in future scenarios.
For example, encourage a child to realize the relationship between how quickly you drive (safely) and how much time it takes you to get to a destination. Ask her questions to get her thinking about the situation, such as “How fast do you think we’ll get to school if we drive at this speed? How about five miles an hour faster?” You can make it into a game to see who guesses your arrival time more accurately.
To make an even bigger impact, create open-ended math questions out of your child’s existing interests. Set the stage so your child to see patterns and make math connections when cooking (double or halve a recipe), playing sports (how many points have to be scored in X amount of time to win), shopping (creating a budget), and so on.
For more fun ideas, check out this article about how to sneak math into everyday life.
2. Encourage students to participate in science fairs and math field days.
Science fairs and math field days are excellent opportunities to recognize students for their achievements and explore the variety of activities that the world of STEM has to offer. All participants are acknowledged for putting hard work into explaining their ideas, and having a large group of participants promotes a sense of community and excitement. Being surrounded by others interested in math and science can lead to insightful conversations that spark interest in students. Even just attending an event can encourage students to further explore STEM subjects.
3. Allow students to showcase their knowledge.
The article in the Hechinger Report explains that an effective way to get students to feel recognized for their expertise in math is to have them give an in-class presentation. Having the authority to present on a certain concept allows students to feel acknowledged and validated for their insight. Another strategy to have students showcase their knowledge is to have talented math students tutor or teach struggling students in their class or in younger grades.
In the same piece, Zahra Hazari, one of the researchers who worked on the study, cautions parents and teachers to differentiate between praise and recognition. She explains that the key isn’t just telling students they are good at math, but it is giving them opportunities to feel empowered as “math experts.”
4. Teachers: Provide parents with resources to help their kids.
At some point, parents may feel uncomfortable with the level of math that their students are learning. To help parents feel prepared to answer their children’s questions, teachers can host sessions for parents to learn the same material as their students. This can give parents increased confidence and interest that they can then pass on to their children, as well as an increased ability to provide recognition for their students’ work.
5. Explain how math is different in college.
Math in grade school and secondary school is about learning how to solve the same types of problems over and over again. In college, this is not the case. For math majors, math is about learning why the tools used for solving problems work and no longer about performing rote computations to get the right answer.
As John Urshel of the Baltimore Ravens (and an applied mathematician from Penn State) puts it, “We’re not properly explaining to young children where a love of math can take them. One thing that really limits the amount of people that major in math is that growing up, kids don’t know what math majors do. They think about a major in mathematics and they imagine just doing calculus for four years. Or just more factorization. And this isn’t what it is at all.”
Math majors solve difficult problems by using the tools they have learned and experiences they have had to piece together logical arguments that lead to a correct solution. Math majors go on to excel in a wide range of fields including crytopgraphy, finance, computer science, engineering, and statistics.
Maybe if students could better understand what math majors do and all the possibilities the field allows, they could be more interested in pursuing this academic path.
It’s a shame that despite the fact that there are so many talented students who excel at math, they don’t feel encouraged to pursue this fruitful path in college and beyond. Encouraging students by empowering them can lead to more people getting to realize their full math potential.