NSF Awards Grant to Bryn Mawr and Spelman To Increase Number of Women in Mathematics

Posted January 24th, 2008 at 5:04 pm.

photo: Rhonda HughesThe National Science Foundation recently announced that it will invest a further $1.1 million in EDGE (Enhancing Diversity in Graduate Education), a program founded and led by Bryn Mawr Professor of Mathematics Rhonda Hughes and Spelman College Professor of Mathematics Sylvia Bozeman.

EDGE is designed to encourage women, especially women from underrepresented groups, to complete graduate programs in mathematics, where retention rates for those populations are typically very low. Since its founding in 1998, 105 students have attended the summer workshops that constitute its core program, and 14 of those women have earned Ph.D.s, “with many more in the pipeline,” says Hughes.

“Good statistics about graduate attrition rates are very hard to come by,” she says, “but estimates of the percentage of graduate students who don’t complete a graduate degree in mathematics range from 30 to 70 percent. “Less than ten percent of the 105 EDGE students have left graduate school with no degree at all, and many of the rest are well on their way to the Ph.D. finish line, Hughes says.

This new grant, the largest yet made to the program, will fund not only four more years of summer workshops, but also several initiatives—including a nationwide conference at the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute in October—to spread the news about the successful methods EDGE has developed and offer them as models for mathematics departments around the country.

The new initiatives will expand the reach of the EDGE program, both forward to advanced graduate students, postdocs, and junior faculty members, and backward to undergraduates.

The EDGE summer workshop helps women make the transition from undergraduate to graduate study. Part of the preparation it offers is mathematical—essentially a couple of courses in advanced mathematics that are rarely offered at the smaller colleges where many program participants did their undergraduate work.

But what really distinguishes EDGE, Hughes says, is the emotional and cultural preparation it gives its students, as well as a structured mentorship program that has proven critical to EDGE students’ persistence in Ph.D. programs on numerous occasions.

“Many studies have shown that social and intellectual isolation is the main barrier to success in graduate programs for women and underrepresented groups,” Hughes explains.

“A student who connects with a strong mentor early in her graduate studies is much more likely to earn a degree than one who doesn’t. We make sure that mentor is in place, and keep in touch with mentors to monitor our students’ progress.”

According to Hughes, a well-regarded study of attrition in graduate programs cited “cultural capital”—that is, familiarity with the culture of academic research—as a key factor.

Many EDGE participants don’t have the kind of cultural capital that eases the graduate student’s path, and the mentors are important resources to students in understanding and interpreting their interactions with professors and peers.

“The cultural leap from undergraduate to graduate education is enormous,” Hughes says. “Even students who have been stellar performers all the way through college can stumble when confronted by the achievement-oriented, often unforgiving environment of a graduate program in the mathematical sciences.

One of the mentors’ most important functions is to reassure students of their ability to succeed with difficult material when they are struggling and begin to question themselves.

“Negotiating setbacks is an essential skill,” Hughes notes. “When EDGE students reach graduate school, they are likely to have peers who have attended large research institutions that gave them the opportunity to take more advanced courses in mathematics than they have had. It is important for them to recognize that knowledge is not the same thing as ability—they may know less than some of their peers, but that doesn’t mean they’re less bright. They have to be able to persist in that kind of situation.”

The summer program helps prepare students, Hughes says, “by introducing some of that anxiety about their performance in a controlled setting, where we can be supportive and encouraging. Once they have made it through difficulties one time, they know they can do it again.”

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