Math and Statistics Awareness Month: An Expert's Guide to the "Poetry of Logical Ideas"

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Meet the Expert: Jennifer Quinn, PhD

Alex Fielding

Dr. Jennifer Quinn is the President of the Mathematical Association of America (MAA), and a professor of mathematics at the University of Washington Tacoma. She earned her BA, MS, and PhD from Williams College, the University of Illinois at Chicago, and the University of Wisconsin, respectively.

Dr. Quinn has held many positions of national leadership in mathematics including Executive Director of the Association for Women in Mathematics (AWM), and previously for the MAA: co-editor of Math Horizons, Second Vice President, Chair of the Council on Publications, and Officer-at-Large on the Board of Directors.

Committed to making mathematics accessible, appreciated, and humane, Dr. Quinn also serves on the STEAM Learning Collaborative Action Network, part of the Foundation for Tacoma Students, whose goal is to expand interest, experience, and success in science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics for all Tacoma students—particularly girls, students of color, and those impacted by poverty.

Dr. Quinn received a 2007 Haimo Award for Distinguished College or University Teaching, and a 2006 Beckenbach Book award for Proofs That Really Count: The Art of Combinatorial Proof, co-authored with Arthur Benjamin. For more than a year, Dr. Quinn has been writing a blog, Math in the Time of Corona, with frequent posts on emergency remote teaching, maintaining humanity, and building community in isolation.

The Importance of Mathematics Today

“Mathematical thinking underlies rational thought; mathematics is the universal language of problem-solving,” says Jennifer Quinn, PhD, President of the Mathematical Association of America (MAA). “In a world chock-full of data, mathematics and statistics are powerful tools to promote transparent data-driven decision-making.”

It’s hard to overstate the impact of mathematics in today’s society. It powers the computers, smartphones, and applications that turn the gears of the world. In many respects, math is simply a form of truth. But the elegance of mathematical solutions and the subtleties of mathematical logic mean that math’s impact is sometimes missed by the people who are affected by it most.

“The beauty and power of mathematics are unnoticed by much of society,” Dr. Quinn says. “Math and Statistics Awareness Month empowers organizations like MAA to showcase the impact of mathematics on our world. Mathematics is everywhere, and must be accessible to everyone at any age.”

Balancing the Equation in Mathematics

In modern history, mathematicians have been largely white, and largely male, part of a dominant trend that continues to today. But this doesn’t make mathematical or statistical sense: white males are not naturally better at mathematics than other demographics, so why the imbalance? Several biases—some intentional, and some unintentional—have combined to create a skewed outcome, and today’s mathematicians are seeking to correct it.

“The mathematics community must create an environment where diverse mathematicians can thrive,” Dr. Quinn says. “There is a history of false ideas of who can succeed in mathematics. MAA is committed to addressing the entrenched inequalities that remain so that we can grow together to more effectively pursue our vision of a society that values the power and beauty of mathematics and fully realizes its potential to promote human flourishing.”

While greater inclusion and more accurate representation is a desirable outcome in and of itself, there are additional tangible benefits to achieving it. A diverse world requires diverse solutions, and as society’s most pressing issues become more complex and wide-reaching, a broad range of perspectives are needed to develop solutions that address them most effectively.

“The equation is simple,” Dr. Quinn says. “More voices = more ideas = greater progress.”

Adapting Mathematics to the Future

The future of mathematics depends upon adaptation, and the field’s adaptive abilities were put to the test over the past year, during the Covid-19 pandemic. Perhaps the area of mathematics hardest hit was the classroom, which, during an abrupt shift to remote learning, had to adjust to an entirely new paradigm.

“At this current moment, the mathematicians most deserving of our praise and recognition are math teachers at all levels,” Dr. Quinn says. “During the pandemic, there was no plan, no training, no intentional curriculum development—only a global health crisis. Teachers responded by sharing their mathematical knowledge and passions in new ways. They worked to maintain a sense of normalcy in unprecedented times and absolutely deserve our recognition, appreciation, and gratitude.”

As mathematics begins to look past the pandemic, the focus remains on applying a core universal truth: that math belongs to everyone. Today’s mathematicians will help create the world that tomorrow’s live in, and it will hopefully look more diverse, more equitable, and more inclusive.

“The Mathematical Association of America is committed to building an inclusive community, one where everyone belongs and contributes to advance the understanding of mathematics and its impact on the world,” Dr. Quinn says.

Resources for Math Awareness Month

The field of mathematics is a collective sum of many diverse parts. To connect with the broader mathematics community, and learn about the ways in which mathematics is evolving towards a more equitable future, check out some of the resources below.

  • American Mathematical Society (AMS): Since 1888, AMS has been advancing research and connecting the global mathematics community. Today, they have over 30,000 members. Find AMS resources on diversity and inclusion here.
  • American Statistical Association (ASA): Dating back to 1839, ASA is the second oldest, continually operating professional association in the country and the world’s largest community of statisticians. Learn more about their advocacy platform here.
  • Association for Women in Mathematics (AWM): AWM is the leading society for women in the mathematical sciences, supporting not only those who participate in them directly, but also helping to influence the general mathematics culture to create a more welcome and nurturing environment. Check out some of the programs they offer here.
  • Mathematical Association of America (MAA): As the world’s largest community of mathematicians, students, enthusiasts, MAA seeks to further the understanding of our world through mathematics. Connect to their blog, which is based on the organization’s core values, here.
  • National Association of Mathematics (NAM): NAM seeks to promote excellence in the mathematical sciences for underrepresented minorities in general, and African Americans in particular. Membership is open to everyone. Read their most recent newsletter here.
  • Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics (SIAM): For nearly 50 years, SIAM has sought to convey useful mathematical knowledge to other professionals who can implement mathematical theory for practical, industrial, or scientific use. They also host a list of competitions and prizes in applied mathematics; find the deadline calendar here.

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