A proof that math opens doors
NEW HAVEN, CONN.
Don't tell Evelyn Boyd Granville that math lovers are nerds. This child of the Great Depression and daughter of a janitor has a mission: neutralize the belief among today's students that being good at math makes you a social misfit.Skip to next paragraph
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"There's a lot of peer pressure to be cool, to be like the rest of the crowd - and this whole word they've invented, 'nerd,' didn't exist in my day, thank goodness," says Ms. Granville, the first black woman in America to earn a PhD in mathematics, from Yale University in 1949. "You could be great at music at a young age, and nobody looks upon you as weird ... do they? We must get beyond this for mathematics. And I think we can."
Granville didn't have an easy start. She attended a segregated school in the US capital and grew up poor. But she decided, even as a grade-schooler solving math problems in her head for fun, that everything would come out right if she stuck with math. And it has.
Math was always the great equalizer for her. "The fact that an African-American woman can do math has to mean something to somebody," she says. "It has to change some attitudes - or at least make people think."
Granville, who has taught math for decades to students from college to grade school, is being hailed as a mathematical beacon to a new generation of US students. Last year, she was honored by the National Academy of Sciences. Dow Chemical Co. sent her on a national tour of grade schools to help inspire future mathematicians.
She believes in the need to make math meaningful to students, recommending, for instance, that grade-schoolers be taught the history of math's impact on society. But her campaign is an uphill battle: Most US students don't have the math skills of children in other countries.
That's why she's fond of recounting the warning of MIT math professor Daniel Strook: "I believe that math is in grave danger of joining Latin and Greek on the heap of subjects which were once deemed essential but are now, at least in America, regarded as relics of an obsolete, intellectual tradition," she said during a recent speech at Yale.
Granville hopes her story will show children that math "opens doors." Her parents always made it known that they expected her to attend college, because education was key to escaping poverty and gaining respect. She had role models, too. Inspired by her third-grade teacher, she always knew she wanted to become a math teacher.
Instead of succumbing to the stereotype that minority women didn't "do" math, adults in Granville's life supported and nurtured her love of logic. Quickly, it began driving her to higher achievement, first as a valedictorian at Washington's Dunbar High School in 1941. When she didn't think she could afford college, her mom gave her $500 - and an aunt matched that. She graduated summa cum laude in 1945 from Smith College, where mathematics scholarships paid her way.
Rocketing off to Yale, she earned her doctorate with a thesis on the esoteric "Laguerre series in the complex domain." Impractical? Not so. She says it prepared her well "for everything."
After completing her PhD, Granville taught from 1950 to 1952 at a black college - then leaped into government service. In the era of Sputnik, the space race and cold war were in full sway. First at the National Bureau of Standards, later at the US Army, she used numerical analysis to aid the design of missile fuses. She later provided trajectory and orbit analysis for space projects Vanguard, Mercury, and Apollo for NASA.