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Black History Month
2019 Honoree

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Erica Walker

Erica Walker

Professor of Mathematics Education

Chair of the Mathematics, Science, and Technology Department

Director of the Institute for Urban and Minority Education

Teachers College, Columbia University

Where are you from?

I’m from Atlanta, Georgia.

Please describe an experience (or 2) that helped you discover/ cultivate your interest in the mathematical sciences.

A really key experience for me was doing mathematics with my next door neighbor when I was 4 or 5. He was really great – a public school teacher – and he would bring math workbooks for me to work on. I remember vividly him telling me to always check my work, and to write my numbers neatly so I could go back and see what I had done. I loved math from then on, and his cultivating my interest was very important. Having that fun out-of-school experience with math kept me engaged with math in school, even when it wasn’t so interesting. As I continued in elementary, middle, and high school I continued to find math interesting and fun. But I wasn’t sure what I could do with it as an adult, although in hindsight I always liked tutoring and helping my friends with math. My high school homeroom teacher (who taught math) really encouraged me to take AP calculus and consider a math major in college, which I did. Exploring the impact of these out-of-school learning and socialization experiences continues to be an important part of my research agenda: I think they are key to developing math interest and persistence. In education research there’s much more attention paid to, for example, the literacy experiences that people have outside of school and how they contribute to competence and engagement with reading and writing. So many mathematicians share powerful stories about how they engaged with math beyond school settings and I use those vignettes to describe to teachers and educators and the lay public a different vision for how we can all do mathematics. And I always hope in my talks to reframe math as something interesting and worthwhile for the lay public – instead of something to be dreaded!

What is/are your most proud accomplishment(s) in regards to your career in the mathematical sciences?

I’m most proud of my work reframing existing narratives about math excellence. For example, my research exploring the communities and networks of high school students showed that contrary to popular (and largely anecdotal) belief, students are very interested in mathematics and want to learn more of it. And they garner support for their mathematics learning from multiple and sometimes surprising sources. And I’m very proud of the historical work I’ve done to highlight people, institutions, and mechanisms for success that should be much more prominent in the narratives we share about the history of mathematics in this country – too often entire segments of our population are missing from these narratives, and I’m proud to have made even a small contribution to righting the historical record (with my book “Beyond Banneker: Black Mathematicians and the Paths to Excellence”).

 

Please share some words of wisdom/inspiration.

I’d like for everyone to be a “math ambassador”. So many people have terribly negative experiences with math and those experiences can derail them from opportunities. I try in my research, practice, and everyday life to be intentionally invitational: to steer folks who think they don’t have any interest or talent in math to see that mathematics as a discipline is a very big tent. There’s something in it for everyone.