Math Club for Girls
by Michelle Scribner-Maclean
Sometimes they act like they are the bosses!"
These are some of the comments of some of the girls participating in a Boston Museum of Science course called Math Club for Girls. Who are they talking about? Boys. Although they realize they need to learn to work with boys on problem solving in mathematics, the third and fourth grade girls participating in this class value time doing mathematics without boys around.
Maintaining the link
Why have a math class just for girls? There are a number of reasons. The Museum of Science offers a wide variety of math and science courses for preschoolers through adults, but by the third grade the number of girls taking classes drastically decreases. By offering classes targeted for girls the hope is that they will maintain an interest in math and science. Many times the themes of these classes center around topics that are more interesting to girls. In addition, the girls report that they enjoy having an experience just for them; they feel more at ease and less hesitant to participate in group activities. Parents of the girls seem to agree and often request more of the same types of classes.
Methods to enhance math
The course is offered twice a year and has three two-hour sessions. The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics Standards promote moving the focus of learning about mathematics away from solely doing computation and towards immersing students in an environment which includes estimating, logical reasoning, and doing geometry. One of the goals of our course is to get the girls to consider that mathematics involves more than just computation. Discussions with the girls have shown that this is important. One of the first things we do in the class is ask the girls to brainstorm and share their ideas about what math is. Interestingly, through many sessions of teaching the class, most of the girls answer that math "has to do with numbers", or "is when you add, subtract, multiply, and divide." Of course, those things are part of mathematics, but we have noticed that they rarely mention other ways of knowing about and doing math.
From buttons to field guides
One of the resources we use for the class is the book, Math for Girls and Other Problem Solvers, produced by the EQUALS program at the Lawrence Hall of Science. The book features activities which encourage girls to look at mathematics and problem solving in many unusual ways. For instance, we begin our class by having the girls make a list of the jobs their parents have and we discuss whether or not math is involved in these careers. We lead the girls to the idea that every job uses math in some way and its important that everyone is comfortable doing mathematics. Circle Math, another activity from this book, is used as an ice-breaker: the girls cross their arms, gather in the middle of the room, and join hands. Their challenge is to untangle themselves and attempt to make a circle. After doing this activity a few times the girls have an increased comfort level with each other.
Sorting and classifying is another focus of the class and a great way to combine learning about math and science together. We begin by sorting hundreds of buttons and encourage the girls to devise as many classification systems as possible and we record their ideas on a class chart. The girls then create their own button designs in a Button Factory activity, modified from Frog Math, also from the Lawrence Hall of Science. After the buttons are completed the class studies the attributes of the colorful designs they created. The girls establish categories such as number of holes or shape of the button. By using graphing mats on the floor we move the buttons around and discuss how the graph changes as we change categories. The girls are amazed that the same data can produce different results. We continue sorting and classifying by giving the girls the chance to sort hundreds of shells and rocks. We provide field guides and discuss how scientists use classification systems to provide common categories to study nature.
A look at estimating
The class continues exploring math by focusing on estimating. We begin by reading the humorous book, Counting on Frank by Rod Clements, in which the main character of the story estimates a variety of things including how high his toast would pop up if the toaster were as big as his house and how much he would weigh if he put on all the clothes in his closet. Our estimating focuses around food. We start with a lesson from Marilyn Burns Collection of Math Lessons, by estimating the number of raisins in a small box. We provide a small sample of raisins and record the girls estimates about how many raisins might be in the box on a class data chart. They then open the top of the box, examine the top layer of raisins and are allowed to revise their estimates. We share and record strategies for estimating and revising on our class data sheet. One of the "big ideas" of this section of the course is that estimating is different from guessing in that it involves a strategy. The more information or experience you have, the closer your estimate can get. The girls count the actual number of raisins in the box, check their estimates, and then we present them with a larger box of raisins in the hope that they will use the strategies and information about how many raisins were in the small box when considering their estimates for the larger box.
Estimating doesnt always focus around quantities and we try to model this by having the girls estimate how much space 100 popcorn kernels will take up in a small lunch bag after we pop them. The girls discuss their ideas, come to a group consensus, and record their group estimates by drawing a line on the outside of the bag. They check their answers by popping 100 kernels and are usually surprised by how little space they take up when they put them in the bag. They are then presented with 300 kernels and asked to estimate again. We discuss the idea that they now have information about the amount of space popped corn takes up and they can use it to estimate with the new kernels.
Through discussions with the girls we have learned that many of them initially do not consider doing puzzles as a way of helping them learn math. Solving puzzles helps develop spatial and logical reasoning skills and aids in developing persistence when faced with a problem. We use tangrams and pentominos to introduce the class to both structured and open-ended activities that are related to mathematical concepts. While we read Grandfather Tangs Story by Ann Tompert aloud, the girls use puzzle outlines to create the animals described in the book with tangrams. Working with puzzles requires the use of strategies, too, and we encourage the girls to work at flipping, turning, and sliding the pieces to find solutions.
The girls then use tangrams and pentominos to create their own puzzles and have their peers try to solve them. In addition, the girls create tangram and pentomino creatures and write stories or poems to accompany them. The girls really enjoy these open ended uses of puzzles and many ask to take the pieces home with them so they can continue designing puzzles.
A community of math learners
An underlying theme of the class is teamwork and communication. These third and fourth graders are constantly encouraged to help one another, share ideas and strategies, and to communicate their understandings to each other. Through working together and discussing their ideas, the girls in this course seem to gain confidence in their own abilities. Further, many of their parents report that their daughters have a renewed excitement for doing math.
As a former classroom teacher, I realize that the reality of the classroom (and the world) means that mathematics instruction in school cannot and should not necessarily turn into a math club only for girls. However, teachers can promote experiences that introduce the idea that math is not only adding numbers. Further, by encouraging communication and sharing ideas in a group setting, teachers can build a community of math learners who encourage one another, applaud creative ideas, and foster an excitement about mathematics for all learners.
Burns, M. A Collection of Math Lessons from Grades 3 through 6. Sausalito, CA: Math Solutions, 1987.
Clement, R. Counting on Frank. Milwaukee, WI: Gareth Stevens Publishing, 1991.
Downie, D., Slesnick, T. and Stenmark, J. Math for Girls and Other Problem Solvers. Berkeley, CA: EQUALS, Lawrence Hall of Science, University of California, 1981.
Curriculum and Evaluation Standards for School Mathematics. Reston, VA: National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, 1989.
Tompert, A. Grandfather Tangs Story. New York: Crown Publishers, 1990.
- At the time this was written Michelle Scribner-Maclean was an instructor at the Boston Museum of Science where she taught math and science classes for preschoolers and elementary children. She finished her PhD in science and math education and now teaches elementary science and math methods at UMass Lowell.