UWM Photos by Elora Hennessey
An older white man with a beard.
That’s how students at Brown Street Academy drew pictures of mathematicians and scientists at the beginning of last year.
“When we google mathematicians, the images are primarily older or no-longer-with-us white men,” said Danielle Robinson, the school’s mathematics intervention specialist. “We wanted to change that narrative for our kids.”
Most of the students at the school are African American, so Robinson, a UWM alumna, and her colleagues wondered if reading stories about mathematicians and scientists of color might change their perceptions. They teamed up with DeAnn Huinker, professor of mathematics education at UWM and one of Robinson’s teachers, to do some research.
“We wanted to focus on literature that highlights mathematicians and scientists who look like our students so that they can begin to realize that there are people in the world of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) that look like them,” Robinson said.
The Women’s Giving Circle, a team of education alumni who support education research, provided funding.
With the funds, Robinson and teachers were able to buy books about mathematicians and scientists of color like Katherine Johnson, of “Hidden Figures,” whose work helped propel America to the moon; Benjamin Banneker, an early astronomer/mathematician; and Mae Jemison, an engineer, physician and astronaut.
Younger children read “Scientist, Scientist, What Do You See?,” which follows the format of popular children’s book, “Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?,” and features a diverse group of scientists and mathematicians.
Robinson and Huinker worked with six teachers and 139 students at Brown Street Academy throughout the 2018-2019 school year. Teachers built lesson plans around the books and also made them available during free reading time.
The results: By the end of the school year, the children were drawing pictures of mathematicians and scientists who looked like them. That was one of the goals, according to the researchers.
“We really wanted to help them see themselves as being capable of doing math and being able to possibly change the world someday,” said Robinson.
Another result of reading about mathematicians and scientists was that students began to understand better how these professionals work.
When the students were first asked about what it took to be good at mathematics, they answered that mathematicians “never made mistakes,” or “the answer just pops into their head,” said Robinson.
When they finished reading about real mathematicians, the students’ responses were different.
“What they said they learned about mathematicians was that they make mistakes, they fix them and learn from them,” said Robinson. One student wrote: “They never give up. They solve problems.” Another student wrote: “If someone’s good at math…even when they get a problem wrong, they work hard, and they help other people and ask questions.”
Now, said Robinson, when students struggle with math homework they’re thinking: “I can do hard things; that’s part of being a mathematician. I make mistakes.”
The researchers are applying for additional funding, but the project is continuing this year with more students and teachers becoming involved. The books purchased last year are in the classrooms, and they’re hoping to add more.
Said Robinson: It’s been a learning curve, but really rewarding.”
Students are taking the lessons they’ve learned home. One fifth grader’s grandmother told Robinson at a school conference: “You’re the one who keeps telling my kid he’s a mathematician. He comes home and talks about it.”
If you would like to help fund Community Engagement and Research, please visit the Give to UWM webpage.
Or contact Christina Makal McCaffery at (414) 229-4963 or firstname.lastname@example.org to explore opportunities to support students, ensure research excellence and enable ongoing collaborations with community schools and organizations.