January 28, 2011

Math Professor Elizabeth McMahon Loves Getting Students Excited about Concepts

Elizabeth McMahon

What’s a math professor doing teaching a women’s and gender studies course?

The answer, or rather the genesis to that question lies in the frustrating three years Elizabeth McMahon spent at the University of Michigan obtaining her master’s degree in mathematics, one of only 10 women among 104 grad students.

“There was a real culture of discrimination against women,” says McMahon, professor of mathematics. “I was told I didn’t belong there because I was too social and by being too social they meant sitting around the coffee table and talking about math.”

A less confident (or head-strong) person might have packed up their protractor and gone home, but McMahon is made of sterner stuff.  Nothing raises her ire more than the suggestion she or any woman can’t do something. It’s a theorem she takes great glee in disproving.

“One of the reasons I started teaching the class, Gender and Science, is because I wanted to understand what happened,” she says. “Why do people think women can’t do math and science?”

There’s no simple answer to that prejudice, says McMahon. “But there’s lots of evidence that women need a more nurturing environment and they don’t get it,” she says. “I’m very attuned to that. If we want to keep women in math-based disciplines, we have to give them the support they need.”

When it came time to go for a Ph.D., McMahon headed south to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where her gender was no longer a liability.  “They just wanted good students,” she says.

But in many ways her experience at the University of Michigan formed her philosophy as a teacher and fueled her involvement with Lafayette’s Posse Scholars program.  This is the ninth year the College has participated in the program, which sends young leaders from urban schools to America’s top colleges in familiar groups of 10 or 12.

McMahon and her husband, fellow Lafayette math professor Gary Gordon, served as mentors for the second posse in 2004. McMahon now serves as mentor to the College’s fourth posse from Washington, D.C., and Gordon mentors posse number eight from New York City. Mentors meet with their group every week for two hours and with each student individually for one hour every other week.

“They’re just a great group of young people,” she says. “Their academic background isn’t always as strong, but they do the work and they bust their butts to succeed.  It’s a leadership scholarship, so they’re involved in all kinds of activities on campus. It’s not just about them. They want to make the world a better place.”

McMahon first developed a passion for math in eighth grade after questioning the possibility of a concept involving squared positive and negative numbers.  Instead of dismissing her supposition as nonsense, the teacher said, “That’s a fabulous idea.”

“For me that was the beginning of my love for math,” she says. “It became something that I could think about on my own and question. I can’t stand that some people think of math as rote or that it has no meaning. Math is beautiful.  It’s so much fun.”

A visit to her office in Pardee underscores that belief.  Brightly colored toys and brain benders demonstrating geometric and other mathematical concepts fill the shelves of her book cases.

“I have a different one for each day of class,” she says. Then she breaks out SET, a game that challenges players to find patterns using three cards.  She’s also using it to conduct research in geometry.

In 2007, McMahon and her daughter, Hannah, who had just graduated from high school, participated in the first — and what turned out to be only — SET National Championship in Columbus, Ohio, where they bested the crowded field for two of the final three spots.  McMahon was eliminated in the first round, but Hannah went on to become the first and only SET Grandmaster, not surprising considering she’s the offspring of two math professors with keen senses of play.

If you doubt this, check out the garage door of their home. It’s painted in hues of blue and green to resemble orthogonal Latin squares. It’s clear that for McMahon, math is more than a field of study just as teaching is more than a profession.

“I love getting students excited about a concept,” says McMahon, who has taught at Lafayette for 25 years. “When you work on something and go over it and over it and then they finally get it, and there’s that ‘aha!’ moment, it’s a great feeling.”

posted in Academic News, Committed Teachers and Scholars, Faculty and Staff, Faculty Profiles, News and Features

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