Encouraging women in mathematics through an interdisciplinary course

In all her time studying math as an undergraduate, Jacqueline Dewar never heard about any woman who had made important contributions to math. The first time she encountered a woman mathematician in the curriculum was when Emmy Noether was mentioned in a graduate course on rings and fields. When Dewar became a professor at Loyola Marymount University, she decided to design an interdisciplinary course on women in math in order to counteract negative stereotypes and promote interest and persistence among future women mathematicians and math educators.

Dewar first taught her course in 1979, drawing inspiration from Toni Perl’s book Math Equals: Biographies of Women Mathematicians + Related Activities. The book highlights nine mathematicians: Hypatia, Émilie du Châtelet, Maria Agnesi, Mary Somerville, Sophie Germain, Ada Byron Lovelace, Sonya Kovalevskaya, Grace Chisholm Young, and Emmy Noether. Dewar’s course includes material about all of them, plus statistician Florence Nightingale. Originally designed as a math course for liberal arts students, the course eventually became an upper-division elective for math majors. Yesterday at the MAA Contributed Paper Session on Promoting Women in Mathematics, Dewar gave a talk, “Encouraging Women in Mathematics Through an Interdisciplinary Course,” describing the contents of the class and the impact it has had through the years.

The mathematical content of the course doesn’t focus on particular concepts, but rather three broad recurring themes: inductive and deductive reasoning, representing a single concept in multiple ways, and math as a study of patterns (not just numbers). Similarly, Dewar asks her students to find commonalities in the biographies of the 10 women, connect their experiences to the present day, and engage critically with scholarship on gender issues in math education.

The math and biographies are woven together throughout the course. Key assignments include a short paper synthesizing three readings on gender equity, small group math work, an individual research project, and an in-class report on a modern woman mathematician. 

After teaching her class for decades, Dewar knows that it has made a positive impact, one that continues to spread. In follow-up surveys of her students, she found that the class gave them an opportunity to do math in a supportive environment and prepared them to discuss the state of women in math in the 21st century. And its influence on future teachers carried over into their classroom practice. By 2012, three former students teaching in Los Angeles schools had used Dewar’s course materials with 165 secondary students and 20 elementary students. 

I know I certainly would have benefitted from taking Dewar’s course. Although I have learned about the contributions of some of the mathematicians she discusses, I unfortunately don’t know anything about others. Luckily for me (and anyone else who wants to read up on the topic), Dewar has made her course materials freely available online. Or if you want just a quick summary, check out the slides from her talk and her course description and selected bibliography

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