As a young woman interested in mathematics, Ellen Murray was alarmed by a trend she noticed while mentoring younger students. Female students didn't like math and didn't think they could do as well in the subject as their male counterparts.
Ms. Murray, 20, was mentoring students in the Summerbridge Program at Sewickley Academy for at-risk, high-achieving youth in 2012. When she gave the students a pre-program survey, she was dismayed at the results.
"I asked them if they liked math and the boys all said they loved it, while the female students said they hated it," Ms. Murray said. "And they were very emphatic about it and some even drew sad faces on the surveys."
While Ms. Murray loved teaching at the six-week program, the girls' attitudes toward math stayed with her.
"I watched to see how they did in math over the summer, and they did just as good, if not better than the male students," she said.
Ms. Murray said her own confidence in math came from one of her professors at the University of North Carolina, where she studies.
"I received a C [grade] on my first quiz and I was absolutely devastated. When I went to see him, he said, 'Don't worry, I got a C on my first math quiz in college.' He made me feel so much better," she said.
Her professor helped Ms. Murray see that even though she might not be a "math genius," she could still enjoy it and maybe even teach it.
That sparked her interest to teach at Summerbridge. After her work that summer, she decided to apply for an undergraduate research grant at the university to look a little more closely at gender differences in attitudes and performances in math.
Because she is double-majoring in mathematics and global studies, she thought she would take her research a step further and compare the attitudes of students in the U.S. versus China.
Ms. Murray chose Hampton High School -- her alma mater -- and a school in China that one of her close college friends had attended.
"I won $5,000 for the research aspect and another $5,000 to attend an intensive Chinese program while I was in China," she said.
Ms. Murray observed and surveyed mathematics students at Hampton in late May before she went to China for eight weeks to study and observe the Chinese students.
Prior to observing the students, Ms. Murray met with Hampton superintendent John Hoover and high school principal Jeff Finch.
"I knew what kind of student Ellen was and knew that it would be a serious study," Mr. Finch said. "When we had the opportunity to have such a wonderful young lady come back to the school and for our current students to see not only such a good role model, but to see someone that age so engaged in education, I jumped at the chance."
Her former high school mathematics and statistics teacher, Kathy Dickensheets, agreed.
"It was wonderful to see one of my former students take the skills she had learned in class and put them into practice, but it was also wonderful to have it be Ellen," Mrs. Dickensheets said.
Mrs. Dickensheets said as with all research, the integrity of the study is important. "I can say that the methods that she used to gather data were accurate and complete," she said.
When Ms. Murray went to China in June, she attended an intensive learning program where students were allowed to speak only Chinese. She could speak English only when she telephoned her family in Hampton.
"And we had to make sure that there weren't any other students around to overhear us because we they didn't want us hearing any other languages," she said.
After the language program, she went to visit her friend in Nanjing and visited a high school affiliated with Nanjing Normal University. While in China, she also visited two other schools in Kunming, China.
"I looked at the same elements at each school for consistency sake -- where the female students sat, how they interacted with the teacher and each other, what strategies they used to solve problems," she said. Ms. Murray calls her project "The Tale of Two Classrooms" "For the process, I interviewed, observed and surveyed nearly 200 American and Chinese students as well as seven teachers," Ms. Murray said.
Her findings showed that female students in both cultures do not enjoy math or have as much confidence in their math skills as their male counterparts, but Chinese students overall found greater relevance in math to their future studies. And American students had a greater desire to ask questions and have discussions in the classroom,
Chinese students found math more challenging and were more likely to practice and discuss math skills outside of the classroom.
Ms. Murray presented her findings to the Hampton school board and will make a formal presentation at the University of North Carolina.
"I'm so excited to learn math from some of the brightest minds in the world. I love research and this is one more amazing opportunity," she said.
Kathleen Ganster, freelance writer: email@example.com. First Published October 10, 2013 1:45 AM