BERKELEY, Calif. – Whether she's assigning a problem, or helping students work out the answer, professor Zvezdelina Stankova is passionate about one thing: math.
"For me, mathematics is very, very beautiful," said Stankova.
Stankova wants young girls to feel the same way. She says "math circles" may be the key. They are weekly after school groups that make learning math fun. Complicated problems become intriguing games.
Stankova says a math circle was what inspired her as a young student in Bulgaria.
"That's where I saw problems that were so interesting and so engaging," Stankova said. "No one ever told me math was too hard for girls." In 1987 she represented her country in the International Math Olympiads.
But statistics show American girls lose interest in math as they get older. While 81 percent of elementary school girls report liking math, that number drops to 61 percent once they reach high school.
Stankova says her math circles are keeping girls interested, and her students agree.
"Math seems straightforward; but then there's also times when it's not, when it's super creative and you can make up problems," Francis Campbell, one of Stankova's said.
University of Missouri researchers found a possible reason why boys pull ahead in math. They followed 300 students from first to sixth grade and found boys called out more answers in class during the first two years but also had more wrong answers. By sixth grade, the boys were still answering more problems than girls and were also getting more correct. The researchers believe the boys' impulsive strategy of calling out the answers seems to benefit them in the long-run.
The idea that girls aren't or shouldn't be good at math is a stereotype that has been around for generations. These stereotypes have put girls at a disadvantage when it comes to math-related professions like engineering, financial advising, and computer sciences.
How girls think about math: A 2006 study from a Stanford psychologist found a relationship between a fifth-grader's IQ and how they reacted to confusion. In his research, he found the higher a girl's IQ, the greater the setback when they encountered confusion; but with boys, the higher the IQ, the more they felt energized and encouraged by their confusion. He also found that how a child thinks about their math ability, whether they think of it as a "gift," a fixed entity, or as an ability that can be grown and expanded, can impact their math achievement.
The study also concluded that by 8th grade, the gender gap in math scores was only present in girls who thought of their ability as fixed, and therefore could be called into question when they faced a setback. (Source: https://www.stanford.edu/dept/psychology/cgi-bin/drupalm/system/files/cdweckmathgift.pdf)
Girls are calmer when taking tests: A recent study from Germany found that girls experience more pre-exam levels of stress and anxiety than males, but are actually calmer during math class or an exam. Even despite similar achievement, girls were more likely to be anxious before math class or an exam. The study also showed girls self-report a lower level of competence, compared to boys. The study authors pointed out these discrepancies are largely due to social stereotypes which are internalized by young girls. (Source: https://www.psychologicalscience.org/index.php/news/releases/do-girls-really-experience-more-math-anxiety.html)