
NATIONAL NEWS

Mathematicians try to come up with new Equations to Attract Blacks
by Lorinda Bullock
NNPA National Correspondent
WASHINGTON (NNPA) – Mathematicians are known for figuring out the
world’s most difficult equations and finding ways to apply them to
nearly every aspect of daily life. Black mathematicians find themselves
not only working in their chosen field of study, but also working to
solve one of their most complex equations yet—why so few of them exist.
Of
the nearly 15, 000 math professors in the United States, there are only
about 300 who are Black and about 500 who are Hispanic. Out of the 433
Math Ph.D.s awarded last year to U.S. citizens, 14 were awarded to
Black Americans, said the American Mathematical Society.
Duane
Cooper, a math professor at Morehouse College, said a general
perception of math being ''too difficult'' contributes to the low
numbers.
“I think when students say math doesn’t make sense;
it just kind of hurts me because nothing makes more sense than
mathematics,” Cooper said. “Everything fits together beautifully and
logically and so in some sense if it doesn’t make sense, somewhere we
have failed to help you see why it makes sense.”
So rather
than keep their elite club of professors, statisticians, and analysts
exclusive, Black mathematicians like Cooper are striving to widen their
circle.
In just the last two weeks, two major events have
taken place to encourage greater Black and minority participation in
all levels of math—the BlackwellTapia Conference in Minnesota and the
16th annual MathFest that was held at Howard University.
“One
of the major purposes of the conference is to showcase what’s been
achieved by this group of people and to give an opportunity for people
to get together for the younger people in the field to meet the
successful senior people,” said Douglas Arnold, a professor of
mathematics and director of the Institute for Math and Its Applications
at the University of Minnesota.
During the BlackwellTapia
conference, the nearly 150 minority mathematicians joined together to
discuss trends in minorities in math, and put on a program called “Math
Is Cool” for nearly 100 local minority high school students.
Cooper
knows all too well the importance of all of these functions. When he
earned his Ph.D in 1993, he was one of about five Blacks to be awarded
a doctorate in mathematics that particular year. He said events like
the BlackwellTapia Conference and Mathfest are encouraging a new
generation of Black mathematicians.
“The numbers (of Black
Ph.D.s) were in single digits fairly steadily until the late 90s. But
we’ve stayed there. So it’s still a small number… There are various
programs and efforts to try to do a little better. But there’s still
plenty to be done,” he said.
At the MathFest, math
undergraduate students from Howard, Morehouse, Spelman, Delaware State,
Morgan State and others met their peers and mathematicians working in
science, national security, and for large accounting firms.
Panelists
at MathFest explained that math can help the U.S. government break
foreign codes in our airwaves to figuring out why Monarch butterflies
may no longer exist in the next 20 years.
During a question
and answer period, students were delighted to find out their chosen
career path can be lucrative and fulfilling. Certain jobs, the
panelists said, may have starting of $60,000 with just a Bachelor’s
degree. For Ph.D.s, the students were told, some tenured math
professors could easily earn six figures.
Ashley Crump, junior
math major from Howard, fell in love with math as a fourth grader in
Ft. Worth, Texas. She said her fourth grade teacher and high school
Advanced Placement Calculus teachers inspired her to pursue math in
college. She found the entire conference helpful.
“When I
first got here (to Howard), I had no idea what I was going to do with
math. I had no idea about graduate school, no one ever told me about
that. I was just doing it because I liked math. So programs like these,
different conferences to go to, really teach you more about the
opportunities, more about your field. You get to meet a lot of people
and you see those same people at different conferences so you get to
network,” she said.
Crump plans on going to graduate school
and pursuing her Ph.D. Crump said like her teachers, she would like to
go her old school and encourage Black students to get into math.
“I
want to at some point and go back to explain to students there’s money
to be made and people don’t like it so if you can do it. Go do it and
you will be a commodity,” she said.
The idea of getting
excited about math and spreading it to other young Black people is
exactly why Scott Williams became one of the founders of the National
Association of Mathematicians, the organization responsible for
MathFest, and the creator of the Mathematicians of the African Diaspora
website.
Williams, a worldrenowned math professor currently
at the State University of New York at Buffalo, remembers when he was
one of about four Black Ph.D.s in 1969.
Sitting in the back
row of the auditorium, Williams was beaming as he looked out over the
crowd mixed with students, professors and math professionals discussing
internship and job opportunities.
“When I started out I didn’t
know anybody (Black) in mathematics. It was a while before I got to
learn a few people. So I think organizations like this are phenomenal,”
he said.
“I realized we needed to have some connections.”
Numbers
from the College Board show that while numbers are improving for Black
students taking the Advanced Placement Calculus exams in the last
decade, they still make up a small percentage of test takers.
Of the 248,000 students who took the AP Calculus AB and BC exams in 2006, only 9,680 were Black.
Crump
said kids need to become “comfortable” with math early on, but more
enthusiastic teachers and parents are needed to guide kids along the
way.
“I think middle school is the most important time in your
life. You learn the most and that’s when you decide you’re going to
college. I think it’s the most important time that we need to express
to young, Black students that they need to be comfortable with math.
They may not love it, but they need to become comfortable,” she said.
Eager students like Crump reassure Williams that the future of Black mathematicians is in good hands.
“There’s
just a wealth of possibilities. Kids think, you look at the math
teachers in high school and this is what I can do with it. You can do
so much more,” he said.
“I know people with degrees in
mathematics who have gone into law and medicine and all kinds of
things. You are trained to think precisely about things. This is one
advantage to have that training. So there are many, many things
possible with mathematics.”





