Professor leads national grant program

Wheaton College Associate Professor of Mathematics Rachelle DeCoste.

The Mathematical Association of America (MAA) has appointed Professor Rachelle DeCoste to serve as director of a program aimed at promoting mathematics education and careers for girls and women.

DeCoste will serve a five-year term as the head of the Tensor Women and Mathematics Grants Program, which funds projects across the country serving students from middle school through college.

A three-time recipient of Tensor grants, DeCoste will bring nearly 20 years of experience with programs for women and girls in math to overseeing the MAA program. In fact, Tensor grants provided the funding for DeCoste to launch the Career Mentoring Workshop for women who have recently earned doctorates in the field.  

“I’m really excited about this appointment,” DeCoste said of her new work with the MAA. “The Tensor program was really how I got my start in my own program, and I decided it would be a great way to be involved and give back to others.”

The need for the types of programs Tensor grants support continues to be great. The percentage of women earning college degrees in mathematics has actually declined since 1995, according to a 2017 report from the National Science Foundation. The gap is most pronounced at the highest levels; women earn just 30 percent of doctoral degrees awarded in the field.

“There is still a ‘pipeline’ problem in math. We lose people at every stage, so we really need programs for middle school and high school girls to keep them engaged and excited about math,” DeCoste said.  “If we don’t work on outreach to middle and high schoolers, the percentage of bachelor’s degrees going to women in math could decline even more. We need all types of people engaged in the math community, otherwise we are losing out on the talent out there.”

DeCoste is jumping into her new responsibilities quickly. The deadline for submitting applications for a 2018 Tensor grant is February 12; DeCoste’s first task will be to organize a panel review of this year’s grant applications during spring break (March 12–17).

“I am very interested in seeing what other people are doing,” DeCoste said.

She is looking ahead to grow the Tensor program by creating communities of practice among educators working on similar approaches to encouraging women in mathematics.  

“What I see as a real opportunity is connecting people who have similar interests and are confronting similar challenges,” she said. “We can create a community of people who are working on these things and can help each other to be even more impactful.”

The power of networking is a theme in DeCoste’s work with new Ph.D.s and with undergraduates. DeCoste and Assistant Professor of Biology Laura Ekstrom launched the Summit for Women in STEM last year. The second installment of the one-day conference, which aims to encourage undergraduates to continue studying and pursuing careers in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, will be held on March 24, 2018.

Registration for the Summit for Women in STEM will open on Feb. 7, 2018, and it will continue until filled. The event is free and open to all undergraduates.