Why Teachers Are Key in Boosting Girls' Interest in Math

A new survey explores ways to reduce the gender gap in STEM fields.

Posted Apr 20, 2020

Patrick Foto/Shutterstock
Source: Patrick Foto/Shutterstock

Many of America’s top math students may be naturally good at numbers, but when it comes to the appeal of the subject, a vast number of them point to teachers as being the most influential in boosting their interest.

That’s the finding of a national survey of 1,253 11th and 12th graders, conducted by the Philadelphia-based Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics (SIAM) that queried the students about their views on math and STEM. The students are participants in this year’s MathWorks Math Modeling (M3) Challenge, an annual internet-based, intensive math modeling contest organized by SIAM. Similar to the gender breakdown of the M3 Challenge, respondents of the survey were about 60 percent male and 40 percent female.

When asked who or what has been most influential in boosting their interest in math, 39 percent of the respondents (40 percent of males and 37 percent of females) said they’re naturally good at math, while 32 percent of those queried (35 percent of females and 31 percent of males) credited a teacher for their interest.

Only 10 percent (12 percent of males and 9 percent of females) attributed their interest to their peers, and 8 percent (9 percent of males and 7 percent of females) pointed to a parent or guardian as being the most influential.

Now in its 15th year, M3 Challenge involves thousands of high school juniors and seniors committing 14 consecutive hours on a designated weekend in February-March to devise a solution to a real-world problem using mathematical modeling. Nine winning teams from across the country have been selected and will have their submissions judged by a national panel of doctorate-level mathematicians. The final event, traditionally held in New York City in late April, has been canceled due to the COVID-19 outbreak. Judging will be done virtually this year.

Sponsored by Massachusetts-based MathWorks, a leading developer of mathematical computing software, M3 Challenge spotlights applied mathematics and technical computing as powerful problem-solving tools and viable, exciting professions — awarding $100,000 in scholarship prizes. This year’s challenge — which asked students to use math modeling to provide recommendations and solutions for the trucking industry’s turnover from diesel to electric, with help from industry association North American Council for Freight Efficiency (NACFE) — drew the participation of more than 3,500 students (760 teams).

According to the survey, teachers were similarly influential in many of the students’ decisions to participate in the math competition, with 19 percent (22 percent of females compared to 17 percent of males) citing a teacher’s suggestion or encouragement as the biggest reason why they decided to participate in the contest. Just over half (53 percent) of respondents thought it would be a fun experience, with 55 percent of males pointing to this reason versus 51 percent of females.

“While there are not huge differences in male and female views on math and STEM, the survey shows there is still a marked gender difference when it comes to subject preferences and how students view their own strengths, as well as confidence levels in math class,” says Michelle Montgomery, M3 Challenge program director at SIAM.

According to the survey, 76 percent of male students describe their participation in math and science class as frequent and confident, while only 58 percent of females say the same. Twenty-eight percent of females refer to their math and science class participation as frequent but questioning, compared to 12 percent of males.

“Regardless of gender, a strong majority of all survey respondents (89 percent of males and 76 percent of females) cited STEM subjects as their academic favorite, yet only 67 percent of females identified them as their strongest subjects, compared to 85 percent of males,” said Montgomery. “With 83 percent of males saying they plan to pursue STEM fields in college, compared to 69 percent of females, our survey confirms a myriad of earlier studies that show females are less likely than males to pursue higher education and careers in STEM.”