Why Math…Why Not?

January 31, 2019

In the spring of 2016, Michole Washington became only the ninth African-American woman to graduate from the Georgia Institute of Technology with a Bachelor of Science in applied mathematics.

Despite Georgia Tech’s location in Atlanta — a city with a 54 percent African-American population that proudly fosters and celebrates the educational, political and economic achievements of black people —Washington’s position in its history books is not all that surprising.

Now, as a current University of Michigan student pursuing a master’s in applied mathematics and doctorate in mathematics education, Washington recently attended the Marjorie Lee Browne Colloquium, an event hosted annually by the Department of Mathematics during the university’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Symposium. Browne was U-M’s first known African-American woman to earn a doctorate in mathematics in 1950.

Washington attended the event to discuss the barriers that prevent girls from underrepresented groups from excelling in math, as well as the strategies to overcome them. She said her pursuit of math spawned from the need to escape a tumultuous home environment.

“I’d literally go to the library and work on math problems all day,” Washington said. “I’d go in the summer and do math problems because I didn’t want to deal with what was happening at home. I did that year after year after year and ultimately ended up being ahead in math at every grade level.”

Women of color are still significantly underrepresented in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields. According to the National Science Foundation, few women and even fewer African Americans, Latinos and Native Americans complete doctoral degrees in mathematics. And while Black, Hispanic/Latino and Native American people represent a quarter of the U.S. population, they earn less than 5 percent of the doctorate degrees in the mathematical sciences.

Washington said that for progress to be made, black girls like her need the resources, support and opportunities to succeed.

Research from the American Association of University Women has shown girls can excel in STEM subjects when they feel confident in their math and science skills. African-American girls actually begin showing an inclination toward these fields earlier than their peers, according to the research

Suzanne L. Weekes, professor of mathematics in the Department of Mathematical Sciences at Worcester Polytechnic Institute was the keynote lecturer for the colloquium and focused her presentation on challenging the ideas of the stereotypical mathematician and creating an environment within the math community that is welcoming to diversity and inclusion.

“We all deserve a seat at the table,” said Weekes, the  second known black woman to earn a doctorate in mathematics and scientific computing from U-M. “We all deserve the right to be mathematicians. We have to make sure we are leaving behind or creating space where everyone feels welcomed to take their place.”

Weekes has lived out this advice by founding and co-directing the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute Undergraduate Program (MSRI-UP), a comprehensive program for undergraduates that aims to increase the number of students from underrepresented groups in mathematics graduate programs by providing research opportunities, long-term support and mentorship.

During the talk, Weekes also emphasized the significance of mentorships and the development of a professional network — both elements Washington said she initially lacked.

“They only way I got through my undergraduate program was by pushing myself,” said Washington. “People would often say to me ‘I don’t know why you just don’t switch your major,’ and ‘I don’t know why you just don’t do something else,’ but nothing else made sense to me.”

“I had to keep reminding myself,” she said. “I had to keep thinking back to those summers in the library.”

In attempt to alter that experience for a generation of black girls that will come after her, Washington created Afrithmetic, a math tutoring company. She also works to develop relationships with like-minded women such as Brittany Rhodes.

Rhodes holds a bachelor’s degree in mathematics from Spelman College and recently founded Black Girl MATHgic, the first and only monthly subscription box dedicated to inspiring math confidence and alleviating math anxiety in black girls.

Rhodes and Washington connected with one another on Instagram and met in person for the first time at the colloquium.

“There are a number of factors that disadvantage girls – especially black girls – that can stifle their pursuit of STEM fields,” said Rhodes. “I always say, ‘you can’t have STEM without the M.’ Math is a critical element in science, engineering and technology.”

Rhodes said she created Black Girl MATHgic, which targets African-American girls ages 8-16, in an effort to increase their mathematics confidence and aptitude.

“I want to assist in the creation of many more Marjorie Lee Brownes, Professor Suzanne Weekeses and Michole Washingtons.”

Black Girl MATHgic will launch in the Spring.

To track Washington’s journey to her doctorate, follow her on Instagram at @mathematichole, and to learn more about Black Girl MATHgic visit www.blackgirlmathgicbox.com.