Leaders & Working Women ‘Math is hard. You need to work at it’

‘Math is hard. You need to work at it’

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Mathematics and statistics professor

Margaret Moore, 54

University of Southern Maine

usm.maine.edu/math

Margaret Moore likes math. As a young student she enjoyed the challenge and the reward of working through a difficult problem. When she moved into more advanced levels of the study, her interest deepened.

“I loved hearing the whole language of mathematics. It became a more creative endeavor than I had originally seen it as,” said Moore, a lecturer in math and statistics at the University of Southern Maine. “I knew statistics would become my specific area. It gives me the opportunity to take all the pieces – the challenge, reward and creativity – and apply it.”

Moore has been helping her students hear that language while developing and increasing their math skills for the past three decades.

“This fall will mark 30 years since my first teaching job at Colby College,” said Moore, who was an undergraduate at Colby and did her graduate work at Virginia Poly Tech. “I have been at the University of Southern Maine since 1992, as an adjunct for the first 11 years and then full time since then.”

Moore, who grew up in Maryland but spent summers at her grandparents’ home in Down East Maine, hadn’t intended to become a teacher but is glad she did.

“Simply stated, I love teaching. A highlight for me is when I have a convert – someone who didn’t think they would like or do well in my course and ends up doing both,” said Moore who teaches core classes in statistics, algebra and quantitative decision making, along with more advanced courses. She is also the 100-level math coordinator and oversees the graduate teaching students in her department.

Moore said she is in awe of all her students, many of whom are working full time, supporting families and trying to succeed in college.

“When I’m working with students I feel energized. They are willing to work so hard to further themselves, it’s incredible. Women (in particular) have so many demands on them – family, children, career and sometimes parents they are good at keeping their eye on many things at once,” she said. “When they come into my class thinking ‘I can’t do this,’ or ‘I won’t enjoy this’ and then find they can, and I see them push themselves and I have a role in this, I feel good.”

When she’s not teaching, Moore said spending time with her family is “job No. 1, and of course parenting is another teaching job, too.”

Moore said she has recently taken up golf, “and I will tell you that trying to learn how to play golf has made me a better teacher.”

Maine Women had a chance to talk with Moore about her career in math and what she sees for the future of women in STEM fields.

Q: What inspired you to become a math teacher? How did you get to where you are?

A: I was inspired by teachers, two in particular. One was my high school calculus teacher. He made the content come alive. To this day, I remember him teaching volumes of solids of revolution – not an easy topic – by relating it to hockey pucks and trash cans. The other was my calculus teacher at Colby College. During my fourth semester of calculus, which as a history major at that point was an elective, he convinced me to declare a second major in mathematics.

Curiously enough, it was at Colby that I had my first college teaching position. The same calculus instructor was taking a sabbatical year, and I was hired in a sabbatical replacement role to teach courses during his absence. At that time I was not intending an academic career, but I was available and the opportunity was too good to pass up. I didn’t plan on falling in love with teaching and wouldn’t have predicted that 30 years later I would still be in the classroom.

Q: What impact have cultural and educational changes (STEM) had on women with regard to math?

A: Thankfully, being a woman in a STEM field is no longer viewed with skepticism. When I was a student, math wasn’t seen as a field for women. I think that was part societal, and if you were good in math it was not something you would brag about then. Now it’s very much supported. I never had an issue because I had a supportive mentor and family, but I remember people being surprised that I had chosen to study it. We need to continue to encourage women (and men) to pursue STEM disciplines. They are not easy, they require perseverance and determination. Math is hard. You need to work at it. It may not be easy but when you accomplish something you feel good about it.

Q: Are you optimistic about the future for women in STEM fields?

A: Yes, very much so. There are many wonderful role models for women in STEM fields, and the nationwide emphasis on STEM will hopefully broaden the horizons of women as they make decisions about their disciplinary field of interest. I am a firm believer that with appropriate preparation and perseverance that anyone can accomplish what they set out to do. There are a lot of women out there in STEM fields – in chemistry, biology, engineering and others – bright scholars doing incredible work.

Margaret “Peggy” Moore, a lecturer in the department of mathematics and statistics at the University of Southern Maine, has been helping students to conquer—and enjoy—math for thirty years. Photo courtesy of Peggy Moore