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Making the Most of Math

June 10, 2010
Zach Levine, a 16-year-old junior at Evanston Township High School (ETHS), can solve complex abstract algebra problems in a college-level class usually reserved for mathematicians.

"This is equivalent to a 300-level advanced course for math majors," said Sara Quinn, visiting professor of mathematics at Northwestern who teaches Levine and nine other students at Evanston Township. "Most undergrads wouldn't take a class like this."

Both Quinn and Bryna Kra, chair of the math department, are partnering with schools in the Evanston community to enrich their mathematics curricula in exciting ways. Quinn teaches an advanced post-calculus course at the high school level, and Kra visits second-graders at Orrington Elementary School to engage them in math through fun activities.

"We want to show that math isn't a dead, boring subject but something that is exciting and living," said Kra, who visits the classroom three times a month with graduate students.

Kra, who runs a Northwestern faculty group called Women in Mathematics, is concerned about the underrepresentation of women in advanced mathematics. Although she mentors students at the college level, she sees the root of the problem happening much earlier.

"I wanted to get out into the elementary school where the problem really starts," she said. "Girls are not as confident in their mathematical abilities, and they don't see enough women in the math field."

While boys are equally encouraged to participate in the projects, the hope is, Kra said, that seeing a female mathematician, accompanied by female graduate students, will alter a common stereotype.

Quinn, also concerned about the underrepresentation of women in mathematics, is pleased that she is among the first female math teachers her students at ETHS have ever had.

"In every aspect of my teaching life I try to be visible as a young, female mathematician," she said. "I want to set an example that anyone can do this."

Recently, ETHS was named a finalist in the 2010 Intel School of Distinction Awards competition recognizing innovative math programs that serve as a model for other schools - an honor shared with only two other high schools nationwide.

Northwestern's math partnership with ETHS started 10 years ago, according to Ronald Braeutigam, associate provost for undergraduate education. Each year varying numbers of students complete all of the math classes offered at the high school by their junior - or sometimes sophomore - year. Depending on how many qualify, these students are invited to either take courses on the Northwestern campus or attend a class led by a faculty member at ETHS.

In addition to math, a few talented ETHS students also attend other tuition-free courses at Northwestern - often in the languages but occasionally in another area such as science - at advanced levels not available at the high school.

Quinn currently teaches a survey course that covers abstract algebra and group theory - topics Quinn learned as a sophomore in college.

"The students are incredibly motivated and excited by math," said Quinn. "It has been a great experience for both of us."

Levine, the junior at ETHS, plans on pursuing math in an academic career. "I'm learning really interesting stuff, and I'm glad I have the opportunity to take this course," he said. "I feel honored to have a professor teach my class."