Caracas — The two young men, Ricardo and Eduardo, are in their final year at Metropolitan University taking systems engineering and studying computer mathematics.
They were astounded when I told them that most university students in the United States studying computer science, operations research, and business management were men. In their class at the university, about half are women, and in the classes behind them, the students are nearly all women.
"Why?" I asked.
The answer was simple: "Entrance is by examination and many girls get the very high scores."
I tried to explain "math anxiety" among US girls and women to these high-scoring Venezuelan young men. They shook their heads in disbelief and asked me in a puzzled way, "But why should girls be worried about mathematics?"
The following day I visited Ricardo's old school and told the director of secondary mathematics there about our conversation. Like the boys, she was thoroughly puzzled, confirming that many of the high-scoring girls in this coeducational private school went on to the field of mathematics.
Then I spent an hour in a sixth-grade classroom for a math class. The teacher, a Cuban who left when Baptista fell, is the school favorite and teaches all the sixth-grade classes the mathematics preparing them for secondary school.
Memory and facility with number relationships is her forte, and she put the youngsters through a demonstration of one group of math games after another. Boys and girls flew through enormously complicated arithmetical computations, and if anything the girls were ahead of the boys.
Her answer to the question about "math anxiety" was, "But what would the girls fear?"
The directors of the school -- both women -- were equally puzzled. From the beginning, girls have left the school well prepared and loving mathematics.
They talked out the situation among themselves in rapid Spanish, then explained carefully to me and a fellow visitor: "Women take the lead in everything here except politics."
A young American, hired by a large Venezuelan engineering firm to direct their computer work, explained that the two best engineers in the firm were women, graduates of Metropolitan University.
My next contact was with a young male secondary school student who attends the German (Humboldt) school in Caracas. His school, he explained, has two sets of students. One group, the one he is in although his family immigrated to Venezuela from Vienna, studies in Spanish adn takes German (as well as English) as a second language. The other group studies in German, with Spanish and English instruction added.
His English was up to a little joke. The only schools where girls did not excel in mathematics, he assured me, were those that had only boys in them.
My next discussion was with a girl in her final year at a Roman Catholic secondary school. We were joined by her calculus teacher, she doing the interpreting from Spanish to English. Yes, the teacher had heard of this "math anxiety" in the US, and wondered what it was like in all-girls' schools.
"What was it like in his?" I asked.
"Absent," and with that my interpreter, an honors math student, dissolved in a fit of giggles.