For decades, the gender gap in mathematics has been a topic of conversation. Even though women make up nearly half of the U.S. workforce, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, they are still underrepresented in STEM jobs – especially in mathematics.
Despite facing challenges like gender stereotypes, lower wages and salaries, harassment, and a lack of recognition, many women in mathematics history broke down barriers with their achievements.
Introducing your students to women in mathematics during Women’s History Month and beyond will inspire your students, teach them about math history, and remind them that math is for everyone. Find ways to create excitement around the six women highlighted below as well as other women in mathematics, with activities like the following:
- Highlight one of these women in mathematics at the start of a unit in their respective fields. Then, use the learning tools highlighted below to create engaging hands-on lessons to give them a deeper understanding of their accomplishments.
- Have students choose a female mathematician to research and report on in an essay or a presentation.
- If time allows, show your students the 2016 film “Hidden Figures,” which tells the story of the African American women whose math skills helped propel the U.S. into space in the 1960s.
Hypatia of Alexandria
Hypatia, who was born sometime between 350 and 370 AD in Alexandria, Egypt, was one of the earliest known female mathematicians and the first known female math teacher in history. She was the daughter of Theon, an upper-class mathematician and philosopher, and followed in his footsteps in the study of math, philosophy, and astronomy.
She collaborated with her father on classical mathematical works, translating them and incorporating explanatory notes, and taught students from her home. She also made several advancements in mathematics, namely her work on conic sections and developing the concepts of ellipses, parabolas, and ellipses by dividing cones into planes.
Learning activity: Give your students dissectible wood cones that show the conic sections of a circle, ellipse, parabola, and hyperbola. The cones can be easily assembled or disassembled for hands-on learning.
Sophie Germain battled against social prejudices and a lack of formal training in order to become a celebrated French mathematician best known for her work in number theory. When she was a young girl in late 18th century France, Sophie taught herself mathematics from her father’s books and her interest became a passion.
She was unable to enroll at École Polytechnique when she was 18 because women were not allowed to at the time. Instead, she obtained lecture notes and studied the lectures of prominent mathematicians. Using a male pseudonym, she gained mentorship to get her work noticed and established herself in male-dominated circles.
In 1809, she became the first woman to win a prize from the French Academy of Sciences for her work on the theory of elasticity. Her biggest achievement was in number theory. Her partial solution to Fermat’s Last Theorem was used as a foundation for decades and helped pave the way for it to finally be solved.
Learning activities: Have your students play with numbers with two fun and engaging games. The 24 Game will do for digits what Scrabble did for the alphabet. To win, a student must be the first to combine all four numbers on each card to make 24. To get 24, players can add, subtract, multiply, and divide. The other game, Nasco Integer War, will give students equations to figure out to see who has the highest number. The player with the highest number wins the round and whoever has the most cards at the end of the game wins.
Euphemia Lofton Haynes
Euphemia Lofton Haynes was the first African American woman to have a doctorate in mathematics, which she received from The Catholic University of America in 1943.
She spent over 45 years teaching math to elementary, high school, and university students. Euphemia was appointed to the District of Columbia Board of Education starting in 1960 and was president of that body from 1966 to 1967. During her time on the Board of Education, she fought racial segregation within the school system and supported a lawsuit to desegregate the school system.
Learning activity: When introducing a new math concept or topic to your students, break your class into pairs and then present a problem or an equation for each pair to solve. Ask the students to describe to their partner how they would solve the problem to build communication skills while helping reinforce understanding of the concept you’re teaching.
Albert Einstein once wrote a letter to the New York Times calling Emmy Noether “the most significant creative mathematic genius thus far produced since the higher education of women began.” Emmy Noether was born in Germany in 1882 and is still widely considered the most influential female mathematician in history.
Even though her mathematics education was delayed because of rules against women enrolling in colleges, she received her Ph.D for a dissertation on abstract algebra. For many years after receiving her doctorate, she was not able to earn a university position and had only received the title of “unofficial associate professor” at the University of Göttingen.
After losing that title in 1933 because she was Jewish, she moved to America and became a lecturer and researcher at Bryn Mawr College and the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey. There she developed many of the mathematical foundations for Einstein’s general theory of relativity and made significant advances in the field of algebra.
Learning activity: Enhance student interest in mathematics with Hands-On Equations®. This set is an innovative approach to introducing students to algebraic linear equations. It consists of three levels. At each level, students use the game pieces to physically “set up” the given algebraic equation. They then use the “legal moves” to physically solve equations. For extra fun with algebra, give your students a set of color-coded foam dominoes to help them practice algebraic expressions and equations.
Florence Nightingale was once acknowledged by Karl Pearson as a “prophetess” in the development of applied statistics. While she is most remembered for her work as a nurse in reforming hospital sanitation methods, she was also a pioneer in the applications of statistical analysis and methods of data presentation in medicine.
Florence was an innovator in the collection, tabulation, interpretation, and graphical display of descriptive statistics and developed the “polar-area diagram,” a precursor of the pie chart. In 1858 she became the first woman to be elected a Fellow of the Royal Statistical Society, and in 1874 became an honorary member of the American Statistical Association.
Learning activities: Stick a dry-erase graph chart in your classroom to visualize math concepts with your students. Encourage students to find existing survey results on a topic of their choice and turn those results into a bar graph using the chart. For another engaging activity, ask each student to poll the rest of the class and then have them use the graph chart to demonstrate and present their data.
Katherine Johnson was an African American mathematician who calculated and analyzed the flight paths of many spacecrafts in orbit during her time at NASA. She started high school at 10 years old, started college at 15, and graduated at just 18.
In 1952, when she was 34, she learned about jobs for black women with mathematics and computer skills at the Langley Laboratory at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (which later became NASA). She and fellow mathematicians Dorothy Vaughn and Mary Jackson worked as “human computers,” figuring out difficult calculations needed for spaceflight. During her time there, she broke racial and gender barriers.
In 1969, she calculated the trajectories of the Apollo 11 mission that sent Neil Armstrong and other astronauts to the moon and brought them home safely. NASA dedicated the Katherine G. Johnson Computational Research Facility at the Langley Research Center to commemorate her work.
Learning activities: Have your students experiment with variables such as angle, force, size, and distance using rubber-band cannons to calculate projectile motion. By recording their data and calculations, they can determine how far rubber bands that vary in size can go. Each unit includes enough materials for your entire class. Turn this hands-on math experiment into a fun game by splitting your class into teams to see whose rubber bands can travel the farthest or hit a target with accuracy.
Your students can be a part of the future in mathematics
Studying and celebrating the women in mathematics during lessons may inspire students to pursue and thrive in math-related majors in college and STEM careers after they graduate. You never know — a future Sophie Germain or Katherine Johnson could be in your classroom today.