It’s not often that a Year 8 experience leads to a PhD, but for UniSA Psychology student Rebecca Marrone, the seeds of her thesis were sewn after failing a maths exam in secondary school.
“I was an A-grade student in every subject except maths. I knew I was competent and could do the work, but it took an insightful teacher to recognise what was happening,” Rebecca says.
As it turns out, creativity was the key. Once she applied her own passion – sport – to her maths lessons, she excelled.
“Once I started turning generic equations into creative problems for me to solve, maths became meaningful. Using the equation, speed equals distance over time, I could work out how many metres per second I was covering if I ran 100 metres in 12 seconds. Something just clicked, my confidence started to grow and I developed a passion for maths.”
A decade on, the PhD candidate is using her childhood experience to help young girls excel in maths by encouraging teachers to adopt a more creative and novel approach in lessons.
Her thesis involves working with South Australian primary schools to make maths more relevant to young girls who, historically, have been steered towards the humanities.
“Research shows that girls start to develop negative attitudes towards maths pretty much from birth. Parents are still more likely to give females a doll to play with, while males get building blocks.
“These views are spread – often unconsciously – by primary school teachers. Most students model the attitudes of the person in authority and in western countries where 82 per cent of primary school teachers are female, this is where the stereotypes are reinforced. By the time they get to high school, the differences are already there and the girls branch out into the non-STEM subjects.”
Creativity is usually associated with self-expression and the arts, but it is more about thinking outside the square and generating novel and effective solutions to problems, Rebecca says. This includes tapping into girls’ interests and weaving that into a maths equation, rather than just using a logical method to teach maths.
“I think with females, maths is a confidence thing. If we can get them to feel more positive about maths then they are more likely to continue with STEM subjects in high school and beyond.”
The fact that a female physicist, Michelle Simmons, has recently been named Australian of the Year, will also help shift the perceptions, Rebecca says.
“Women like Michelle Simmons are so important these days as girls need more role models like her to show them it is possible to pursue a successful career in the maths, engineering and science fields and be applauded for it.”
Rebecca is due to finish her PhD, titled Solving sex differences in mathematics through creativity, in 2019.