A young girl smiles and holds up a book, covering half of her face

Adding to a positive math identity

What does a mathematician look like? An old white man with a beard.

DeAnn Huinker
DeAnn Huinker

That’s how students at Brown Street Academy – an elementary school in Milwaukee – pictured mathematicians and scientists, perceptions driven by images passed down through history. “We wanted to change that narrative for our kids,” says Danielle Robinson, the school’s mathematics intervention specialist.

Most of Brown Street’s students are African American, and Robinson and her colleagues wondered if reading stories about mathematicians and scientists of color might get them thinking differently. They teamed up with DeAnn Huinker, professor of mathematics education in UWM’s School of Education, to do some research.

“Sadly, many children cannot envision themselves in the world of mathematics,” Huinker says. “In particular, children of color, as well as all girls, are more likely to develop limiting views of their own mathematical potential.”

The Women’s Giving Circle, a team of UWM education alumni who support education research, funded the purchase of children’s books. Among the people they featured were Katherine Johnson, whose NASA work was spotlighted in the movie “Hidden Figures,” and Benjamin Banneker, an 18th-century astronomer and mathematician.

Huinker and Robinson worked with six teachers and 139 students throughout the 2018-19 school year. Teachers built lesson plans around the books and made them available during free reading time.

Students began to better understand how mathematicians and scientists work. They went from believing that scientists “never made mistakes” or that “the answer just pops into their head” to realizing that mistakes are made and learned from.

And by the end of the school year, when the children were asked to draw images of mathematicians and scientists, something had changed.

They drew pictures that looked like themselves.

“The perceptions children develop of who can and cannot do mathematics starts at a young age,” Huinker says, “and influences their learning throughout their lives.”