Numbers: More than the Book in the Bible

Dr. Talea Mayo discusses math with church youth. One key takeaway–always bring candy!

My college band director always used to say that if ever a church had no children, that church may as well lock its doors right then. What he meant was that the sustainability of an institution is completely dependent on its future leadership. That’s how I feel about science, and that’s why public outreach, to younger people, in particular, is so important to me. Like most assistant professors at research institutions, my to-do list is long and my time is limited.  However, I work hard to regularly participate in outreach opportunities, especially when my participation is specifically requested. One of the most interesting opportunities I’ve had was with a local church youth group.

Hidden Figures, a movie (and book!) about Black American women mathematicians who worked at NASA in the 1960s, piqued the interest of a lot of diverse groups. The film came out in 2016, and Sherry Daniels, a youth leader at the Church of God Higher Calling Ministry, a local church here in Orlando, took her youth group to see it. Her church is in Pine Hills, which is a predominantly black neighborhood where 15% of people live below the poverty line. She reached out to me by email and invited me to be a guest speaker at one of her youth ministry meetings after the movie viewing, stating, “As a young person already with a Ph.D., it  would be a great privilege for our youth to hear about you and your journey, for them to dream about something bigger outside of the Pine Hills area and the world of opportunities available to them… It would be great for the youth to know about other local ’hidden figures‘ like yourself here in the Orlando area.”  I was more than happy to accept her invitation. (I later asked her how she found me and she said she went to my university’s website and searched the faculty pages until she found a brown face.)

As I prepared for the meeting, I racked my brain trying to come up with activities for the youth group.  Ms. Daniels told me I would be meeting with a group of about 15 K-12 students, and that technology options were limited.  I give mathematics lectures to engineering students at the University of Central Florida (UCF) several times a week, but never without a projector to display polished PowerPoint slides. My good friend, Sofia Garcia, who is a fifth-grade teacher at a public charter school in Denver, gave me the great idea to engage the students by asking them how they use math in their everyday lives. She also suggested that I bring candy. I took both pieces of advice, and I’m happy to say, the meeting was a glowing success.

The students ranged in age from about five to 18 years old, and all of them were more than willing to share their ideas about their own applications of math (the candy probably motivated them some, too). After they talked about how they use math, I explained how I use it for my work on the simulation of hurricane storm surges. I followed this with a discussion of my Colorado upbringing and my academic path to my current position as an engineering professor at UCF.

Being a young, black professor certainly has its challenges, particularly in how my scholarship is perceived by others. However, sometimes it works to my advantage. For example, when I am speaking to young scholars from underrepresented groups, I believe it makes me more relatable. I find that students are comfortable interacting with me and I am able to really maximize my impact. This experience was no exception. I found that the students were completely engaged, and my message, that math and science can provide a wealth of opportunities all over the country, was well-received. At the end of our meeting, I gave each student a piece of chalk and encouraged her to embrace her inner mathematician. I left the church knowing that several of those students could see themselves in ways they had not before.  Students like them are the future leaders of science, and if science is dependent on students with the level of enthusiasm I saw in them that day, I know our institution is in good hands and the future is bright.

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