UBC’s Diversity in Mathematics workshops seek to spur an interest in STEM careers. Photo: Istockphoto.

Finding strength in numbers

Mentorship is a crucial part of STEM retention efforts, especially for women, Indigenous youth and recent immigrants.

By Silvia Moreno-Garcia

As an undergraduate student in India, UBC mathematician Malabika Pramanik was one of two women in a cohort of 25. When she moved to North America, she became a visible minority, an immigrant adapting to a new culture. The sense of isolation was repeated. As her own career progressed, she wanted to do something to help marginalized students experiencing the same challenges.

“While there is a certain element of uniqueness in the set of challenges faced by each underrepresented student group, be it women, Indigenous populations or immigrants, there are also some commonalities,” Pramanik, winner of the Krieger–Nelson Prize, explains. “There is a lack of adequate role models who can provide guidance and explain the different career paths available in science and technology.”

Malabika Pramanik talks about the importance of mentorship for underrepresented students.

You might think mentoring is no big deal, but studies have shown that having a mentor early in college can prevent female engineering students from dropping out of school. Research also shows that visible minority and disadvantaged students who are mentored are more likely to stay in STEM majors.

Pramanik has secured a NSERC PromoScience grant to host a series of math summer camps and workshops which attempt to tackle the issue of mentorship in STEM. The first iteration of her Diversity in Mathematics program took place this summer at UBC. Pramanik, together with Simon Fraser University mathematicians Malgorzata Dubiel and Veselin Jungic, and support from the Pacific Institute for the Mathematical Sciences, split the program into two components. One is a day camp for high school students around Vancouver’s Lower Mainland, with a special focus on students with socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds, recent immigrants and Indigenous youth. The other is an undergraduate summer school for women studying mathematics or a related discipline anywhere in Canada or the northwest United States.

Overcoming isolation

Despite efforts at many institutions, women and people of color are still underrepresented in STEM fields. In Canada women account for only a quarter of computer and information systems professionals. A 2013 study found women are less likely to choose a STEM program, regardless of their mathematical ability. In fact, men with lower marks in mathematics are more likely to pursue STEM fields than women with higher marks in mathematics.

Malabika Pramanik. Photo: Paul Joseph.

“For girls, there is a certain age up to which math is a fun challenge,” Pramanik says. “But then, things change. There seems to be a misperception that it is not cool or expected for women to be good at math. It is not valued as an asset, nor actively encouraged.”

Furthermore, a common stereotype pervading many STEM fields is that women get an unfair advantage simply because of their gender, that they have an ‘easy ride.’ Such exclusionary notions, often compounded by the lack of role models, chip away at the confidence of young women trying to enter these disciplines.

“This leads to the ubiquitous impostor syndrome. We tell ourselves our success is undeserved, or a stroke of luck, when it is in fact a combination of intellectual merit and perseverance,” she says.

Another factor, Pramanik says, is that research in STEM fields is perceived as a sterile, isolated experience, a lonely undertaking. For bright young women looking for stimulating, people-facing careers, this tends to diminish interest in the field.

Indigenous students also face barriers. They are less likely to enrol in a pre-calculus math course than their non-Indigenous counterparts. These courses are gateways into STEM professions. If a student stalls in their math journey at this point, they may never take up a career in STEM. Hence the importance of early outreach.

One problem when teaching math to Indigenous students is that the standard curriculum almost never associates math with culture. Mathematics is seen as universal, objective and untouched by the ebb and flow of culture, unlike literature, music or art. Mathematics is generally viewed as belonging to a different plane. After all, isn’t one plus one always two?

Malabika Pramanik writes an equation. Photo: Paul Joseph.

Yet a quick overview of different Indigenous cultures around the world yields a more complex reality. The ancient Maya used a vigesimal system with only three symbols to represent all numbers. Or take the Inca’s khipu knots, which scientists recently discovered were repositories of numerical and narrative information.

“There is a disconnect between the way we teach math and how Indigenous communities weave math into the fabric of their lives,” Pramanik explains.

Then there are young immigrants. When immigrants who speak English as a second language arrive in Canada, they are slotted into classes based on their English-speaking skills, which may not be as good as their peers. However, despite lower English literacy, most recent immigrants perform better on average than their Canadian-born counterparts in mathematics. Math, Pramanik says, could act not only as a ‘safety anchor’ for children who need time to catch up academically in other areas, but also as a validation of existing strengths and a way forward. But this math ability is often ignored. Recent immigrant families may not be aware of all the resources available for students, and their financial needs may limit their options.

What to do, then, when trying to help these very different populations?

“We can build bridges,” Pramanik says. And that’s exactly what Diversity in Mathematics is about.

Paying it forward

Diversity in Mathematics is not the only program of its kind at UBC. GIRLsmarts4tech workshops allow Grade 7 girls to learn the basics of coding .The Cedar Summer Camp and Summer Science programs are both geared towards Indigenous youth. The Math Catcher Outreach Program, developed in part through UBC and SFU Mathematics, introduces science to students through Indigenous storytelling.

But Pramanik’s programming is unique in connecting high schoolers and university students, as well as mixing in Indigenous students and recent immigrants. This two-pronged approach allows women who are completing their undergraduate degrees to attend two research-oriented math mini-courses and learn more about professions in academia and industry that value math skills. At the same time, these young women act as mentors for high school students.

“The point is to allow the undergraduate women to interact with high school students who come from disadvantaged backgrounds, giving the undergraduates opportunities of mentorship and leadership, and for high schoolers to discover more about the journey they can take at a post-secondary institution,” Pramanik says.

Ultimately, Pramanik hopes the program will keep students inspired, allow them to see the value of mathematics at the university level, and consider career paths they might never have imagined before.

“The goal is to create, with help from all communities, a sustainable framework where young people can view themselves as a part of a supportive and inclusive environment that celebrates their diverse strengths, where they do not feel isolated,” says Pramanik. “And one day they can pay it forward with their own mentorship.”

Malabika Pramanik’s office. Photo: Paul Joseph.

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