Math is “uncool” in the U.S., discouraging students from pursuing their talents, according to a study published in Notices of the American Mathematical Society. Girls, especially, are likely to underplay their math interests to avoid being labeled a nerd.
Researchers looked at super-talented, “one-in-a-million” students. In international math competitions, some countries produced far more female math aces than others.
The study found, for example, that in the history of the math olympiad, Bulgaria â€” a country with fewer than 8 million people â€” has sent a total of 21 girls. The United States has sent three.
From 1988 to 1997, the Soviet Unionâ€™s (and later Russiaâ€™s) teams were, on average, 20 percent girls. In the same period, the U.S. teams had none. Between 1984 and 1990, East Germanyâ€™s teams were 11 percent female, while West Germanyâ€™s were 100 percent male, (researcher Janet) Mertz points out, suggesting that genetic differences between countries, if they play a role, canâ€™t be the whole story.
Top math students in the U.S. often are immigrants or the children of immigrants from countries that value math and think everyone can learn it if they try hard enough, the study concluded. (In Silicon Valley, they’re the children of immigrants who got visas because of their exceptional talents in computer science and engineering.)
In the last two years, 13 U.S. girls have competed in the Girlsâ€™ Math Olympiad in China. All but one are of Asian descent.
Ana Caraiani, 23 and a graduate student in math at Harvard, is a two-time Romanian International Olympiad gold medalist. â€œIn Romania, math is not considered as something you need to be a nerd to do,â€ Ms. Caraiani said. â€œMath is about being smart. Itâ€™s about having intuition. Itâ€™s about being creative.â€
A Bulgarian immigrant taught my daughter geometry and then calculus. He was a good teacher, but that cultural thing didn’t rub off. And her father failed to pass on his math genes.