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Getting girls geared up for math

Partipants in the Girls in Gear math forum drop a parachute they made in the Instructional Centre atrium. (Photo by Ken Jones)

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

But a group of women from the academic and corporate world, many with deep ties to UTSC, are trying to change all that through a fun, hands-on math conference geared toward Grade 9 girls. It’s called Math in Motion … Girls in Gear!, and it took place at UTSC early in November, the first time since its inception.

The one-day conference aimed to inspire and motivate young girls to continue their mathematics studies. In addition to presentations from women professionals explaining how a math education shaped their careers, the conference featured interactive demonstrations and fun activities involving mathematical principles.

“We try to shake the stigma attached to studying math that many young women experience,” said Judy Shanks, who organized the first event in 2003. “The conference is a way to show girls that you can like math and be successful like the women here.”

Shanks, a high school math teacher and UTSC alumnae, wants to foster an environment that encourages more girls to continue studying math and eventually enroll in math-related university programs like engineering and computer science, which are traditionally male-dominated.  

She points to studies that show  female enrollment in many math-heavy university programs continues to be low, in some programs as low as 10 per cent. She says that the best way to address the problem is by inspiring girls during their formative academic years. 

Shanks herself was a mature math and computer science student at UTSC who at first felt isolated from the rest of her younger, mostly male classmates. She took encouragement from UTSC professor Sophie Chrysostomou who inspired her to stick with math. It wasn’t long before Shanks became a leader of study groups, and her peers looked up to her for advice and guidance.

Chrysostomou is proud of her former student and gladly takes part in the annual conference. She notes that since math is a cumulative science that builds on knowledge over time, falling behind at an early age can make it difficult for students to excel at it later.

“Many girls fall behind because they find math dry, uncool, unfeminine or unattractive,” she says. “This conference tries to prevent this by illustrating that math can be fun but also very helpful in life. The speakers are proof of this because they are great role models and can inspire girls to study math."

More than 100 girls from the Durham, Toronto and York region school boards took part in the conference that was sponsored by UTSC, the Canadian Mathematical Society, Google and the Ontario Power Authority. Professors Anna Bretscher and Sophie Chrysostomou took part in the conference, along with high school math teacher and UTSC alumna Carol Miron. More than 35 female UTSC students currently enrolled in math-related subjects also volunteered.

Lisa Shao is a first-year cell and molecular biology student at UTSC who volunteered at the conference. She notices the disproportionate male-female ratio in many of her math-related courses and feels events like Math in Motion can go a long way in bridging the gap.

“When I found out the conference was taking place at UTSC I was more than happy to volunteer. It’s important for girls to have role-models in these fields and for them to be inspired to stick with math.” 


© University of Toronto Scarborough