Mathematicians are a rare breed, and female mathematicians are rarer still. What attracts women to math—and how does Mills encourage this pursuit?
By Susan McCarthy • Photos by Keith Lewis
Late in the semester, the atmosphere in Assistant Professor Maia Averett’s Calculus 1 class is jaunty, jokey, casually focused. But serious learning is going on: calculating the volumes of solids using the definite integral. There are brownies and cookies. The task includes sketching solids created by revolving a two-dimensional region around an axis. “I understand the concept, I just don’t understand doing the drawing,” a student grumbles as she taps her pencil in frustration.
Averett does an example. “Just set up the integral,” she tells the class. “Draw your picture and set up your integral and eat cookies.” She moves through the room, looking at the work. “You guys are doing great!” Back at the whiteboard, she often calls on students who’ve been too shy to speak up—but whose work has shown her they know the answer. This is one example of how Mills excels at teaching math. No student gets lost in a crowd, no voice is drowned out—and no one is allowed to take their ability for granted.
A few nights later, in the same room, there’s an exuberant meeting of the Math Club, which Averett started this year. Club meetings may feature an invited lecturer, but tonight it’s math games (and more cookies). Play is enthusiastic, punctuated with laughter and exclamations. “Why isn’t there a purple solid diamond?” someone wails. The club is named the Möbius Band (for the looping, one-sided surface also called a Möbius strip), and students present Averett with a knitted Möbius scarf to “thank you for everything, and for starting math club.”
Club attendees include math majors and minors, calculus students, and a few students who just come for the fun of it. It’s a place where students are in the company of other women who enjoy math, a setting many have never encountered before. It helps to transform math from a subject you have to pass to a field that is delightful to explore.
The number of women entering mathematics fluctuates. Currently, numbers of both men and women majoring in math are increasing, but the number of women majors is rising much more slowly. Across the country women make up around 40 percent of undergraduate math majors, a percentage that plunges in graduate studies. Teaching makes a tremendous difference in the number of women studying math. At Mills, with small classes, the encouragement of dedicated professors, and deeply engaged students, math is flourishing.
Math students at Mills don’t take a narrow view of mathematics, but perceive breadth and depth in the field and its history. Sophomore Emily Searle-White calls math “a global thing. It’s not specific to California or to this country. It’s eternal.” She likens the study of math to learning a new language. “I’m not sure I ever understood how beautiful it was when I was growing up.
“Shivangi Bhatnagar, vice president of the Möbius Band, says, “Math connects thousands of years’ worth of history in one line of thread. To think I am learning the theorems and works of mathematicians and logicians from so long ago is so touching and inspiring.” Bhatnagar is in a dual-degree engineering program that will result in a BA in math and a BS in industrial engineering to be completed at the University of Southern California.
Club secretary Erika Refsland ’14 notes that “every problem is filled with opportunity—different ways to perceive it, understand it, and solve it. Sometimes, when things get overwhelming, it’s stress-relieving to completely focus in on a long problem. Once I figure it out, I feel so triumphant.
“These are the attitudes Mills professors aim to nourish in their students. But the College’s focus on math is a relatively recent development. When Professor Lenore Blum came to Mills in the early 1970s, mathematics courses were folded into science departments. Blum was assigned to teach College Algebra, a “dead-end course” that didn’t prepare students for more advanced math. Concerned by that course’s lackluster content, she saw a chance to “really change the trajectory of people’s lives. If I could quickly get people into pre-calculus work-shops—where students could get the preparatory material in one semester, no matter what their background—they could be prepared for calculus.
“Students responded enthusiastically, and in 1974 Blum founded the Mathematics and Computer Science Department. Professor Steven Givant, who still teaches at Mills, also helped set the course of the department early on. The positive effect on students was psychological as well as educational: “If you can do calculus, you think, ‘Wow! I can do real mathematics,’” says Blum, who is now a professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon University
Barbara LiSanti, professor of mathematics and computer science, says many students take math as a requirement for a science major. “Our job is to pat them on the shoulder and say ‘Hey! Notice that you’re good at this. Maybe you should do more!’”
Math is “a global thing. It’s eternal. I’m not sure I ever understood how beautiful it was when I was growing up.”-Emily Searle-White ’13
A small liberal arts college can be a superb place to study math. Averett says her experiences as a student at the University of California at San Diego and Santa Barbara, with their notoriously huge class sections, discouraged her about the potential of math teaching. Then she found Mills. “I came here because I thought that it would be a great place to get women interested in math, to foster women’s love of math in a stress-free environment, and to support their learning.”
Junior Savannah Smith, a math major who is strongly considering a math graduate program, agrees. While people often think of mathematics as solitary, she says, she’s found it unexpectedly interactive. “It’s really integral to be able to ask questions. I’ve had classes as small as five people. You can talk in a normal voice. You’re not going to be left behind in these classes—and you’re also being kept on your toes.”
“Students are not allowed to just sit back and watch. We’re on their case all the time,” says LiSanti. “At bigger schools there’s so much emphasis on research and so little on teaching. At Mills, teaching is primary.”
Studying math is valuable to students with diverse career plans. Math courses help students get into graduate school and get jobs, says Professor of Mathematics Zvezdelina Stankova. “A lot of students realize the advantage that mathematics gives them in economics, biology, chemistry, neuroscience, or environmental studies. They are all developing mathematical methods.”
“If you have a bachelor’s degree in math everyone will think you are smart!” Averett points out. More seriously, “It’s one of the subjects that teaches you to think analytically in a really structured way.”
Savannah Smith agrees that math study has altered her thinking. “I think I’ll always have the learning skills and the ability to problem-solve and to think in the abstract. It’s helpful in working in groups, it’s helpful in projects, it’s helpful in presentations.” Proving theorems is a useful model in non-math classes. “I’m able to rearrange things and put it out in a really logical way and end it properly.”
Sophomore Emmalena Illia, a math major planning to go to medical school, has already made connections between the mathematical study of probability she encountered in Professor Stankova’s Problem-Solving Techniques and the genetics she’s studied in biology.
First-year student Tala Councilman had hated math in high school, but needed to take at least a year of math at Mills. Then, in Calculus 1, she fell in love with the subject the first day. “It took having such a wonderful professor who really loves math to help me come to love math as well.”
Circles aren’t for squares
Zvezdelina Stankova entices people into math. She poses a mathematical problem—a theorem, or a puzzle. It’s easy to understand the question, but how to solve it is mysterious. Then Stankova will talk about a relevant area of math, and explain how it’s done. “I show them the magic transformation into a new problem that they can solve. At the end we come back to the problem and kill it!” she says with zeal.
Professor Stankova uses this snare in her Problem Solving Techniques class at Mills and at the Berkeley Math Circle, a kids’ after-school program modeled on the study circles Stankova joined while growing up in Eastern Europe. In that culture, Stankova says, “I never felt that because I was a girl I was not supposed to go into mathematics.” Math circle training led Stankova to compete in two International Math Olympiads, the world championship competition for high school students.
When she began teaching, Stankova was dismayed to find that most US high school math students don’t prove theorems. Some encounter proofs in geometry, but in a constricting format that Stankova says “misses the beauty of mathematics.” The problems are boringly obvious. “Enthusiasm gets drained by such a course.”
Today, she delights in passing on her enthusiasm and her sense of ability and, in January, Stankova received the Deborah and Franklin Tepper Haimo Award for Distinguished College or University Teaching of Mathematics, the highest teaching award from the Mathematical Association of America (pictured below). This honors “extraordinarily successful” teachers who have demonstrated “influence beyond their own institutions.”
At Mills, Stankova often encounters students who’ve had the uninspiring pre-college math experience her style of teaching combats. She encounters women who “did not have the opportunity before to be drawn into mathematics. By chance, they walk into a math class, and their view of mathematics changes immediately.”
Stankova has even used the power of math to show that the number of math majors and minors at Mills dipped following periods when calculus was taught by a non-permanent faculty member. The department now includes a tenure-track position to lead that class.
As a result, she exults, “There are more math students, more double majors, and more students ‘defect’ to mathematics. Math at Mills is a subject to be loved, explored, and ultimately conquered by women.”