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Female cadets gain confidence at math conference

Two cadets discussing a math problem on a whiteboard. Undergraduate Women in Mathematics Cadets 2nd Class Caroline Guiler and Renata Russell prepare in the U.S. Air Force Academy Department of Mathematical Sciences Jan. 16, 2024, for their upcoming trip to the 26th annual Nebraska Conference for Undergraduate Women in Mathematics. Six female cadets will travel to the conference at the University of Nebraska Jan. 26-28, 2024. (U.S. Air Force photo by Rayna Grace)

By Randy Roughton
U.S. Air Force Academy Strategic Communications

U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. – Lt. Col. Leann Ferguson has observed many U.S. Air Force Academy Department of Mathematical Sciences female cadets’ confidence soar after attending the Nebraska Conference for Undergraduate Women in Mathematics.

A cadet from the Class of 2022 desperately needed an experience to boost her confidence, said Ferguson, the department’s faculty development director and assistant mathematical sciences professor. She made certain that the cadet attended the conference in her sophomore year.
“We specifically singled her out to go to this conference,” Ferguson said. “She was a different person when she came back because she saw what was possible and that other women had some of the same struggles that she did.”

A group of female cadets will attend the 26th annual conference in Lincoln, Nebraska, Jan. 26-28. The conference’s goal is to arm participants with knowledge, self-confidence and a network of peers to help them become successful mathematicians.

An increased interest in math

In recent years, the Department of Mathematical Sciences experienced a dramatic increase in its ratio of female-to-male graduates as well as the total number of cadets majoring in math, Ferguson said. Over a three-year period, between 2019 and 2021, only one female math major graduated. The overall number of math graduates doubled to approximately 20 cadets a year and, of these, eight were female.

“We still haven’t pinpointed the reason but, beginning in the spring of 2019, our recruitment numbers started going through the roof,” Ferguson said. “We almost tripled our numbers and now graduate between 27 to 35 math majors a year.”

From attendee to presenter

Cadet 2nd Class Caroline Guiler is one of those people who directly benefitted from attending the conference. She has experienced confidence struggles with her math skills.

“So many of my peers just seemed more successful, and I just wouldn’t get it,” Guiler said. “The conference definitely helps in that respect, whether it is confidence or realizing that you can do research and be a competitive person in the math field.”

Guiler attended the 2023 conference and will present a poster at this year’s conference. Guiler and two other cadets – Cadet 2nd Class Renata Russell and Cadet 3rd Class Jane Santamore – will give presentations on the mathematical posters they created, followed by an informal question-and-answer session.

Guiler’s presentation will focus on a U.S. grain database. She was inspired by the damage to Ukraine’s grain production from the war with Russia, she said. She incorporated data from the public grain database based on state production and trades with other countries and organized her data to determine production trends.

“I’m a Russian minor, and I’ve learned a lot about the conflict with Ukraine,” Guiler said. “A big impact is grain production. That’s why I wanted to look at grain production and trade. We are training a computer program to look at the relationships between the data.”

A cadet working through a difficult math problem. Cadet 2nd Class Rylee Au solves a problem in the U.S. Air Force Academy Department of Mathematical Sciences Jan. 16, 2024. Au and five fellow female cadets will attend the 26th annual Nebraska Conference for Undergraduate Women in Mathematics Jan. 26-28, 2024. (U.S. Air Force photo by Rayna Grace)

Conference impact

Since the return of in-person conferences, the conference organizers have allowed more attendees per institution, allowing more U.S. Air Force Academy female cadets to attend. Previously, each institution was limited to two or three attendees each year, but six cadets will attend this year’s event. This means more cadets benefit from the increased confidence and exposure to accomplished women in the field, Ferguson said.

“The biggest thing the cadets get from attending the conference is that they see the struggle, they see the successes, and they see the other women pick themselves back up and keep moving,” Ferguson said.

Practicing presentations at the Academy

In the few months before any conference, faculty members prepare cadets for their conference presentations. Cadets conduct research and create their presentation under the guidance of a faculty member. They conduct dry runs in front of fellow cadets and other faculty members. This practice refines their presentation and public speaking skills.

“Our cadets present above and beyond those of the other undergraduates,” Ferguson said. “I think a lot of it has to do with our academic preparation, but their military training here helps them, too.”

Conference confidence

Perhaps the best example of the conference’s impact is the trajectory of cadets like the one Ferguson purposefully selected for attendance. Ferguson said that cadet, who graduated in 2022, is far from the only one. Ferguson hopes each cadet she sends to the conference will experience a confidence boost.

“She still had to work really hard when she returned, but she had more confidence in herself, so she spoke up more in class,” Ferguson said. “The cadet was more vocal about what she was thinking and no longer afraid to be wrong in front of her peers. She was very excited when she graduated with her math degree. She said she proved people wrong who told her that she couldn’t do it.”

Female cadet club take a group photo. U.S. Air Force Academy Cadet 3rd Class Jane Santamore, Cadet 3rd Class Alexandra Skeen, Cadet 2nd Class Caroline Guiler, Cadet 2nd Class Renata Russell, Cadet 3rd Class Rylee Au and Cadet 3rd Class Julie Simms (not pictured) will attend the 26th annual Nebraska Conference for Undergraduate Women in Mathematics at the University of Nebraska Jan. 26-28, 2024. (U.S. Air Force photo by Rayna Grace)