SIAM News Blog

Supporting Diversity in Mathematics Departments

By Rosalie Bélanger-Rioux

Most mathematics departments are not very diverse. Many mathematical sciences and mathematics education faculty would like this to change, but feel lost as to what they can do as individuals. This challenge motivated me to organize “Increasing Diversity and Inclusion in Mathematics: Some Inspiring Initiatives,” a minisymposium at the inaugural SIAM Conference on Applied Mathematics Education (ED16) last September.

As part of the minisymposium, I described various initiatives I started with colleagues from Harvard University’s Mathematics Department, demonstrating that individual projects can collectively make a substantial difference. Among the various ideas presented for individuals to pursue were a welcome lunch for new math majors, a newsletter, informational events about possible courses or summer research, and sharing a collection of experiences of women in the department to inspire other women. Some of these propositions are specifically aimed at students who may lack a strong social support network and access to information in their math departments. There is strength in numbers and various ways to find allies, be they faculty or students, in pursuing such projects. For example, some of our faculty attended a “Gender Gap in Math” event organized by students, which helped them show support and develop ties with the students. This event also facilitated collaborations on various initiatives. Additionally, departments can organize diversity training for faculty and graduate students, and use it to advertise a diversity discussion group. Such programs grow as more people engage with the issue and offer each other support.

A training led by Cynthia Anhalt (University of Arizona) and myself encouraged participants to read case studies of underrepresented students. The business and teaching communities often use case studies to reflect on real situations and prepare businesspeople or teachers to respond to their employees, students, etc. Participants discussed details of the cases in breakout groups before sharing their thoughts with all attendees. For example, one case described the experience of Luis, a first-generation Latino student going back to school as a mathematics major while working part-time as a restaurant manager to support his family. Luis is on track to obtain a C in his course, mostly because of homework. He does not know, and cannot relate much to, other students in the class, has no one to collaborate with on assignments, and feels that others do not take his contributions in class seriously because they see him as a “C student.” He plans to drop out of school. Training participants were asked to reflect on what they could do as faculty members to support Luis and make him feel like he belongs.

Knowing how to act in the face of delicate interactions, especially related to issues of diversity, is often challenging. I imagine many faculty would like to say something positive in such cases, but are challenged by the prospect of coming up with a suitable response in the moment. Some reactions might be appropriate, supportive, or welcoming, while others might unwittingly be alienating or hurtful. It is crucial to maintain a safe and respectful place where we as educators understand that this is a common problem; many of us grapple with these issues, may unintentionally say things we regret, and ultimately learn from the experiences. Such an understanding allows us to begin (or continue) to reflect on our thoughts and actions, our biases and fears, and our best intentions for students and colleagues.

From left to right: Edward Doolittle, Rosalie Bélanger-Rioux, Cynthia Anhalt, and Rachel Levy at the 2016 SIAM Conference on Applied Mathematics Education. Photo credit: Rachel Levy.
Developing culturally-relevant curriculum is another way to support diversity. In a talk entitled “Leveraging Students’ Cultural Competencies through Mathematical Modeling,” Cynthia Anhalt described one way to do this by providing a glimpse of her work with in-service teachers. With collaborators, she designed the Mathematical Modeling in the Middle Grades (M3) project, which brings culturally-relevant mathematical modeling curriculum to both teachers and students in southern rural Arizona near the U.S.-Mexico border. By offering professional development to these teachers, Anhalt and her colleagues support the teachers’ use of engaging mathematical tasks that require students (many of whom are Hispanic/Latino) to model local community contexts and communicate their thoughts and results.

Edward Doolittle (First Nations University of Canada) described an additional approach to culturally-pertinent coursework in a talk entitled “Completing the Circle, Going Back to the Source: Indigenizing University Mathematics.” Doolittle has been developing curriculum for his “Introductory Finite Mathematics” course in order to help his students find motivation, meaning, and relevancy in the mathematics that they do. For example, Doolittle makes use of the starblanket quilt pattern, much appreciated among many First Nations’ students, to teach sequences and finite difference schemes. He uses the Mayan and Mohawk calendars to explain modular arithmetic and bases. These inclusions also allow students to reflect on cultural differences specific to First Nations people, such as the lesser importance of birthdays but the higher importance of rituals and their proceedings, length, and meanings.

Participating in a 30-minute training or modifying curriculum for cultural relevancy does not suddenly make you a diversity expert. In organizing this minisymposium, I hoped to give attendees ideas, enthusiasm, and confidence in the realization that there are things we can do to support diversity in our departments, thus making a difference for all of our students. Indeed, we can better support our underrepresented students, and set an example for all students about how to navigate situations involving people with different life experiences.

Many others are engaged in work related to diversity and inclusion, and more needs to be done in this area. Let this be a call for action that inspires us to include further sessions on diversity at the next SIAM Conference on Applied Mathematics Education and improve support of diversity in our departments.

Acknowledgments: The author would like to thank Cynthia Anhalt and Rachel Levy for their great suggestions on how to improve this article.

Rosalie Bélanger-Rioux is a preceptor and assistant director of undergraduate studies in the Mathematics Department at Harvard University, where she is involved in teaching, mentoring, and community building. She obtained her Ph.D. in applied mathematics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2014.

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