In the first season of The Wire, an American crime drama television series, a young girl who lives in a poor and crime-ridden neighborhood asks Wallace, a teenaged drug dealer, for help with a math problem. It's a word problem that has multiple passengers getting on and off a bus and that asks how many passengers are on the bus at the end of it. The girl is lost. Wallace reframes the problem for her, describing a situation in which different buyers and sellers of crack cocaine take and give her different numbers of vials. When she answers correctly, Wallace asks her why she can't do the same problem when it's in her math book. She explains that if she gets the vial count wrong, the drug dealers will hurt her, so she must get it right.
Growing up in Pakistan, I often wondered why boys were expected to become doctors or engineers while girls, including me, were encouraged to pursue teaching or home economics. So, when my cousin Sana became the first woman in my family to start a career in engineering, she also became my idol. But a few months later, my excitement soured when Sana quit her job halfway through her first pregnancy. Sana’s story, however, is not unique. Traditional gender roles and lack of access to formal childcare often play a critical role in many women’s decisions to forgo STEM careers.
It’s 3/14, also known as Pi Day – a mathematics holiday to celebrate the irrational, transcendental number we learned in school, for the most part, to calculate the circumference or area of circles. While there are a number of fulfilling Pi(e) related activities you can indulge in, from feasting on scrumptious pies to chasing down the value of Pi (good luck!), it is also an apt moment to turn attention to where children across the world stand in mathematics achievement and other learning outcomes.
From my seat as an Education economist at the World Bank, I go through a number of strategies from countries and sectors in Africa outlining how best to achieve economic growth and development. I am repeatedly struck by a key question: Who will do it? Who will add value to African exports? Who will build? Who will invent? Who will cure? The answer is, of course, that graduates from African universities and training institutions should do it. But the problem is one of numbers and quality—there are simply not enough graduates in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), and programs are of uneven quality.