A proof that math opens doors

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.

"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.

"In the '50s, we were in competition with the Russians to develop these space probes, so it was exciting," she says. "Today we hardly pay any attention when the shuttle goes up. It's kind of ho hum."

Finally, she returned to her first goal: teaching. In 1967, she accepted a professorship at California State University in Los Angeles, where she taught math to teachers.

Today, with "math wars" in full swing, her philosophy doesn't fit neatly with professional mathematicians - or math educators' constructivist, or discovery-oriented, approach. Instead, she blends tradition and progress in a way not easily categorized. Granville, for instance, is a product of rigorous, traditional math training. Yet she taught and wrote a book on "new math" - part of a short-lived 1960s movement to diverge from rote learning and teach deeper concepts.

She advocates letting students explore multiple ways of problem solving - emphasizing clever techniques not in the books. She is similarly adamant that math must not be taught as a "series of disconnected, meaningless technical procedures from dull and empty textbooks." Both are reassuring to the math reformers who are pushing to adopt programs that deal with concepts more, use calculators more, and memorize less.

Granville isn't ready to let current reform off the hook. Calculators in elementary classes should be rare, she says. Even in high school, their regular use can "cripple" the ability to manipulate equations and understand deep interrelationships in math, she says. If that's not enough to set a math-reformer's teeth on edge, she adds that basic addition and multiplication tables must be memorized early. Inability to automatically do "basic algorithms," make algebra and higher math exceedingly difficult for students, she says.

But perhaps the biggest problem, she says, is math teachers who don't really understand their trade because they've been allowed to skip math during training. "We teach that there is only one way to solve a problem, and we should let children explore various techniques," she says. "But we're not training teachers to provide this new approach."

When teachers allow calculators too much, don't have broad training in math, and do not know how to cover deeper concepts, the result is frustration, she says: "The children end up crippled in mathematics at an early age. Then, when they get to the college level, they are unable to handle college classes. It's tragic because almost every academic area requires some exposure to mathematics."

Granville offers no-nonsense advice: Don't give up. Even with her high-powered background, she was first rejected when she applied to teach at several white colleges. She didn't let that - or her gender - stand in her way.

"There's lot of talk about women and minorities in math, why they aren't there in great numbers," she says. "When I was young, nobody told me women couldn't do mathematics. Sometimes, I'm glad I wasn't born in the enlightened '90s."

During her recent Yale address, she implored professors: "Make children learn how to add, subtract, multiply, and divide, and they won't need calculators. How do you teach the beauty of mathematics, how do teach them to ... solve problems, to acquaint them with various strategies of problem solving so they can take these skills into any level of mathematics? That's the dilemma we face."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.