The Challenge: Although there is generally no gender difference in girls’ and boys’ mathematical achievement, there continues to be a significant discrepancy in women’s representation in STEM careers. In 2011, 26% of STEM workers were women and 74% were men. Even among science and engineering graduates, men are employed in a STEM occupation at about twice the rate of women. Nuanced studies of girls’ and women’s mathematical participation suggests that these differences stem not from differences in ability between males and females, but rather from perceptions of the discipline of mathematics and the extent to which the cultures surrounding mathematics are welcoming to women. Mathematics as taught is frequently removed from the contexts in which the ideas make sense; leveraging design is useful as a pedagogical tool—allowing students to experience the mathematical ideas they are working with as an “object-to-think-with” is likely to change the very nature of what they understand about mathematics.
Developing New Pathways: Our primary focus is on traditional women’s crafts like textile, fiber, and needlework as we believe this research will lead to crucial advancements needed in math education. Many of today’s tangible manipulatives (typically found in early childhood and early elementary) are rooted in blocks and other objects that children snap, construct, or otherwise build with to get a sense of shape, volume, or quantity, including Cuisenaire rods, tangrams, Legos, and so forth. Notably, these materials and the practices in which youth engage are coded as masculine and, at best, gender-neutral by the youth themselves, leaving a distinct gap in manipulatives rooted in feminine practices and materials. Therefore in this work we purposefully target women’s textiles, fiber, and needlework crafts to address this twofold gap in tangible manipulatives to (a) have new materials rooted in traditional women’s practices (and coded as “feminine”), as well as (b) have high utility in advanced mathematics.
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