A Case for Pre-College Outreach

The future Sheldon Coopers of America. Personal photo from 2014.

Historically, mathematicians never dealt with any students who were not legal adults. While now there has been an increase of math circles and (summer) math camps and math competitions (epsilon is greater than zero…), mathematicians working with and for those entities is NOT acknowledged in a meaningful way. Those activities, despite the significant amount of time they can take, are grouped under “service”: a miscellaneous category for anything that isn’t obviously teaching—specifically at your one and current employer—or research. These activities aren’t even preferred forms of service, deemed inferior to service to the department or the university.

You get more credit toward tenure volunteering to serve on a 10-person curriculum committee that spends 2 years identifying five new calculus textbooks than you do volunteering to spend two years worth of Saturdays leading middle-schoolers through non-traditional math activities.

We can do so much better.

For the last few decades there has been talk about a need to increase diversity in STEM, in mathematics, in academia, in you-name-it. We talk about how girls need to see more women professors, how BIPOC and Latinx students need to see more (respectively) BIPOC and Latinx professors. And yet our community is pretty much all talk with little-to-no action. You easily could argue (#StarsandBars) that even our talk needs some work.

Yes, there are groups like SWAGGER and EDGE and the Nebraska conference for undergrad women in math. Yes, more REUs are reserving higher percentages of their slots for women, or racial minorities, or first-gen. But those still are opportunities for legal adults and specifically for people who have already made up their minds about their majors. And while the impact certainly has been non-negative, shockingly few racial minorities complete graduate degree programs in their chosen disciplines. With over half the undergraduate population identifying as female, there is still demand for more women in STEM.

And that is because most attempts at diversity are just words, and the few actions by their own results (or lack thereof) are too little too late or are not enough on their own to make a significantly noticeable dent. Epitomizing this first part is probably my least favorite job interview question: “What would you do to help increase diversity in our major?” This is such a pointless question. The composition of the student body is out of faculty control. Admissions determines the diversity pool. There’s only so much recruiting you can do. If you’re at a predominantly white institution where only 52 of over 1600 students are black, it’s going to be nearly impossible to increase racial diversity (say) in any major. If you’re at a women’s college, it’s highly unlikely you’ll be able to recruit anyone but women math majors.

Yet the thing I hate MOST about the question is that it tacitly implies your impact on increasing diversity in the major is limited to dealing with 18+ year-olds and specifically 18+ year-olds at your one institution.

We can do so much better.

I acknowledge that I have been beyond privileged. But even if it seems like grasping at straws, I think one needs to find personal moments that help to relate to moments in the lives of others. That is in many ways the basis of empathy.

Please think of that as you read the next few paragraphs.

While often I have been the only female in the room, and indeed I never in 11 years of college had a math class from a female professor, that never bothered me; I have heard misogynistic comments and have been subjected to minor misogynistic (micro)aggressions in the math community, but many cultures—including my Southern and old-school European ones—are misogynistic; I’ve heard and seen much worse from the non-mathematicians in my life regarding the dissing and dismissing of females. Still, I understand that never having a female professor or more generally a more advanced female mathematician to look up to is discouraging to other women; I have even had undergraduates that I’ve taught thank me for being their first college female math professor (awkward as that honestly was a decision made by a man and knowing the man it probably was not on his radar when he made the decision). I understand that the comments and actions that I lived through that I wrote off as relatively minor would not have been seen that way by another. Basically, in talking over many years to other women (the only demographic minority in math of which I am a member) to come to these understandings, I realize I am a bit of a robotic-sounding freak of human nature.

Though I’ve had it so easy I didn’t even realize there were times I apparently should have been offended, I have felt both isolated and underprepared. I was placed in what basically was a remedial math class my first semester of grad school; only two of the five of us completed the Ph.D. program. Indeed, I took almost exclusively 400/600 level classes my first year, and I went against all advice taking ONE qualifying exam at the end of that first year to try to “stay on track.” I feel as if I know, albeit marginally, what it’s like to sense everyone else around you is so much better prepared; it was embarrassing at times going to the remedial course or struggling with the material at the 400/600 level my friends were acing at the 800 level.

Last, while it’s all relative, I know how lonely it feels to be the only one in the room who couldn’t afford the things everyone else in the room could. I only went to a private undergrad because my joint enrollment led to a full tuition ride. I commuted to avoid paying board and room, but commuting led to me taking classes simply due to traffic patterns and not because my friends were in the class or because I liked the professor. And as I never earned a high school diploma or GED I had additional beyond-money pressure to keep my scholarship and graduate. Even after undergrad a main part of my choice in graduate school was money; UGA gave me the best financial deal and the living expenses alone at some of the other colleges where I was accepted would have forced me into debt that I was petrified of taking on.

So please continue to bear with me just for a few paragraphs on a thought experiment that highlights why I get so depressed and honestly stressed thinking about some of the current models for increasing socio-economic and/or racial diversity at “prestigious” and/or predominantly-white institutions. This is based on my knowledge of the Posse Foundation (technically, a leadership program, but by their own words one that has less than 10% caucasian students) and their (PWI) partner schools, but is not meant to single them out. I suspect many other programs and schools could be used instead.

Suppose a student with a national-average SAT score of 1050 (yes, I know it’s a biased test in many ways, but go with it), who likely as part of this program is a racial minority and definitely is from a public school in a large city, gets an (academic to full) ride to a PWI liberal arts college, a very wealthy suburban institution where currently less than half of students attended public schools and where the average SAT score is over 1300. When talking to fellow students in the dorms about Sweet Sixteens and extracurriculars and best family vacations and SAT scores how isolated will the outlying students feel? How will the financial gap make them feel, especially if they still have to find the money for board and room because they only have a tuition lift? If they additionally are a racial minority, how will they not also feel as if part of their “job” is to educate “traditional” PWI students on their backgrounds? How will they feel not seeing many if any fellow students or faculty of similar backgrounds or experiences? What if that lack of community, that lack of similarity, is so distracting they cannot concentrate on the academics at hand?

Continue the thought experiment. Suppose this student wants to go into a STEM major. If they “might have been overlooked by traditional college selection processes” —using the words of their own program and/or college—it’s probably safe to say that the academics at their high school (in addition to the biased SAT scores) were not the strongest. At many top-tier liberal arts colleges, the lowest-level math class offered is calc I. At many liberal-arts colleges, courses like calc I may only be offered once a year. What if this student either (a) didn’t have pre-calculus in high school or (b) didn’t have a rigorous enough pre-calculus course? Is there going to be a (non-intentionally) isolating remedial course just for them, like there was for my group of five in grad school? If so, I hope the odds are better for success. What if they cannot succeed in calc I fall of their freshman year, whether success is defined by a passing grade or an internal sense that they can do this and they still like math? How easy would it be for them to continue in a degree in math, engineering, chemistry, physics, or even economics? What’s the likelihood their science degree, assuming they still earn one, is in sociology or psychology or anthropology or some other science that is less dependent on math?

This is not to say that these programs shouldn’t be around. This is not to say that these programs don’t do good. 

This is simply to say that we could do better. Easily.


By also amplifying efforts for elementary, middle, and high-school students.

Imagine a Ph.D. in math working with elementary and middle-schoolers in some after-school or weekend setting, teaching them atypical counting tricks or probability or geometry. Imagine a faculty member recruiting undergraduates from their institution to help lead these events and influence kids closer to their own age. Imagine a 12-year-old Latinx girl or 14-year-old young black man seeing a female or Latinx or black math professor or undergraduate; think of the impact at that age seeing someone who looks “just like them” in one of the oldest and most revered branches of intellectual thought could have. Imagine seeing a “traditional” white male math professor encouraging them to continue in math.

Counselors at PROMYS determining who will grade which final exam problem. Personal photo.

Imagine mathematicians of any and all backgrounds helping overworked teachers identify kids with mathematical prowess early-on before they slip through the cracks. Imagine mathematicians talking to teachers and parents about online enrichment opportunities for their children like Art of Problem Solving or the Russian School of Math, about summer camps like Ross and PROMYS and the Canada/USA Mathcamp and Awesomemath (and others, many of which provide need-based full rides). Imagine a Ph.D. getting involved with or starting a local math circle or el-hi weekend math club; imagine them working for more national-scale clubs like Girls’ Angle or Joyful Math Jamboree. Imagine a Ph.D. participating in one of these programs, or contracting for one of these companies; think of the free advertising, think of the local and national-level impact this could have.

Imagine how academically better prepared those students from schools that “otherwise wouldn’t have been considered” could be. How they would fare in their majors. Imagine how many students could start a STEM track in college not only feeling prepared, but like they want to have and know their career could end up being in academia.

And now, for a millisecond, think about the impact this could have on “traditional” students. Imagine a caucasian male seeing a strong female math professor in their middle-school classroom. Imagine the impact it would have on the “traditional” students to see non-traditional mathematicians before they go to college; how that could impact their viewpoints. Imagine how it could be for a “traditional” student to see a “traditional” professor interacting positively with “non-traditional” students. How #goals would it be if a traditional student’s favorite pre-college school-related experience had something to do with a female, a Latinx, a BIPOC math professor? How amazing would it be if, through teaching by example, we as a profession could help prepare students at malleable ages to go into our profession and show them by example and encouragement that any of us could succeed?

Imagine how all of THAT could increase the diversity in your major.

Doesn’t that make the “service” of spending two years coming up with a list of calculus textbooks that still-ever-yet includes Stewart seem like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic?

Pre-college outreach is unbelievably important. Unfortunately, it’s not important when trying to gain tenure. Until or unless pre-college outreach is valued in a major tenure-affecting way by our community, and until more in our community get involved, I fear we will just continue to talk, as InsideHigherEd mentions (among other things). We will continue to have panels, and committees, and days and journal issues all devoted to increasing diversity, but we always will think that more needs to be done; we will continue to report a lack of diversity in our community. We will continue to overload the minorities we do have in our community–the women, the BIPOC, and Latinx–with mentoring our minority undergraduate and graduate students, while still in effect (though not in words) underemphasizing the importance mentoring and outreach has. We will continue to be baffled by our lack of progress.

We cannot wait until students are on our campuses to start addressing these issues. We cannot wait until they are legal adults with 12+ years of schooling. And we cannot put the onus on just a few of our colleagues.

We can do so much better.

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