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Premier Wynne urges girls to pursue math at U of T Scarborough event

Close to 90 Grade 9 girls from across the GTA attended Math in Motion ... Girls in Gear! held at U of T Scarborough on May 7 (Photo by Ken Jones)

Premier Kathleen Wynne urged a group of Grade 9 girls to not let anyone hold them back in pursuing a career in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) during an event hosted by U of T Scarborough.

“As Premier of Ontario, I know how important it is for you to develop these skills and have the chance to explore the many ways you can apply the tools you gain from STEM,” she told the young girls in attendance.

“It may seem like a long way from now, but the skills you develop here and at school are going to widen your career options when you graduate.”

The Premier was at U of T Scarborough to deliver the keynote address at Math in Motion … Girls in Gear! a one-day event aimed at inspiring Grade 9 girls to study math and pursue careers in STEM-related fields. The event draws together women from the academic and corporate world – many with deep ties to UTSC – who act as mentors to the girls by showing how a math education has shaped their careers.   

The event was organized by Judy Shanks, a UTSC alumna and high school math teacher, along with Sophie Chrysostomou, an associate professor in the Department of Computer and Mathematical Sciences at UTSC, who taught Shanks math in university. 

“We try to dispel some of the stereotypes around studying math that many young girls experience,” said Shanks, who organized the first event in 2004. 

Many young girls with a talent for math end up avoiding applying to STEM programs entirely. A recent Statistics Canada report found that on average only 22 per cent of girls with math marks in the 80 to 89 per cent range in high school chose a STEM program compared to 52 per cent of boys with equivalent marks.

The reasons for lower enrolment is not from a lack of talent in math. A recent study found that young women in economically developed countries, despite their ability, are much more susceptible to “math anxiety” than their male peers, while a 2015 OECD study found that many girls are not as confident as boys in their ability to do math.

Shanks said it’s “disheartening” to see so many girls with a talent for math not pursuing STEM at the post-secondary level because many of those programs can lead to exciting careers. One way Shanks and Chrysostomou try to inspire the participants is by having strong female role models in STEM fields for young girls to look up to. 

“Quite often many girls perceive math as dry, uncool or even unfeminine,” said Chrysostomou. “We try to tackle this by showing that math can be empowering and extremely helpful later in life. The mentors who volunteer are proof of this because they’re not only successful but are also enthusiastic about the opportunities a math education can offer."

Close to 90 girls from the Durham, Toronto and York region school boards took part in this year’s event that was sponsored by UTSC, Google, IESO, Canadian Mathematical Society, Scarborough Association of Mathematics Education and the Fields Institute for Research in Mathematical Science.

In addition to presentations from women working in various STEM-related fields, the event also featured interactive demonstrations and fun activities like the “egg drop” design challenge, all of which involved using mathematical principles. After Premier Wynne delivered her keynote address she also answered questions from the girls in attendance.

“As Ontario’s first woman Premier, I’m particularly excited about today because it demonstrates to me that we are well on our way to the day when men and women can make an equal contribution across all fields – the day when “first woman” doesn’t come before any job title in the province,” said Wynne.

Local high school math teachers and more than 35 female UTSC students currently enrolled in math-related programs also volunteered at the event.

Lisa Shao, a fourth-year student studying cell and molecular biology, participated in Math in Motion in Grade 9 and has been involved with the program since her first year at UTSC. What stands out for her is the importance of having strong role models who can relate to the girls.

“Scientists, engineers and mathematicians get to do innovative things that improve our daily lives, and I think it’s important to have diversity in the field so that different experiences and needs are not overlooked,” says Shao.

“I keep volunteering for Math in Motion because not only do I get a chance to inspire young girls to pursue STEM, but their enthusiasm also inspires me to continue in my own field.”

© University of Toronto Scarborough