Jeb Wallace-Brodeur / Staff Photo
Participants listen as Janette Bombardier, IBM Vermont director of site operations, delivers the keynote address at the Women’s Economic Opportunity Conference at Vermont Technical College in Randolph Center on Saturday.
RANDOLPH CENTER — One of the “three R’s” is getting short shrift in Vermont, according to an IBM executive, who told nearly 400 fellow women on Saturday that from where she sits that just doesn’t add up.
If you were looking for a takeaway from Janette Bombardier’s keynote address at the 16th Annual Women’s Economic Opportunity Conference at Vermont Technical College it was this: math matters.
Bombardier, a professional engineer who has worked her way up, along or around the chain of command at IBM during her 30-year career with the company, said math matters in ways that can be both measured and quantified, and that tell a troubling tale.
According to Bombardier, only 38 percent of Vermont’s high school juniors — both boys and girls — meet basic math competencies.
“We’re not doing so good here,” she said.
Bombardier described the award-winning Vermont Math Institute at the University of Vermont as a “tremendous” but under-utilized resource when it comes to teaching Vermont teachers how to engage young people in a core subject area that she said can lead them down a path to lucrative careers.
“Why aren’t we taking advantage of it more?” Bombardier asked during a question-and-answer session that followed her prepared remarks.
Though Bombardier’s address focused primarily on her own interesting career “journey,” most of the questions it provoked involved math and she didn’t duck one of them.
Bombardier said she has been both “bold and proscriptive” on the subject in conversations with those responsible for post-secondary education in Vermont.
“I’ve gone to the university presidents …and said: ‘You’ve got to immediately stop graduating teachers the way you’re graduating them today,’” she said. “‘They don’t know how to do the math thing right and you’re just making more of them. Stop now! Change the requirements now!’ … We’ve got to act with urgency.”
In addition to improving math instruction and making better math teachers, Bombardier said college math courses — like one offered at VTC — could be made available to high school students.
“If our high schools are too small and can’t afford to have it because of all the other burdens you can … do this through distance learning from VTC,” she said. “The curriculum is there, the teacher is there, the books are there. We can very cost-effectively drop new math courses into our high schools if we had the will to do so.”
The flurry of math questions included one mother’s lament that her fourth-grade daughter was quickly losing interest in math because she doesn’t think she is good at it.
“It makes me sad,” the woman said.
“Don’t just be sad, be mad,” said Bombardier, who urged those at the conference to engage their local school systems in a productive way.
“As parents we have to create greater expectations and support,” she said.
The good news, according to Bombardier, is math is everywhere — cooking, art, building, and shopping.
Bombardier said “hidden math” lessons are a good way to bolster young people’s confidence about the subject, while suggesting many in the audience probably had a better grasp of math than they realized.
The sparks for the math questions were a couple of math facts, dropped by Bombardier near the tail-end of her remarks, and a self-described “public service announcement.”
According to Bombardier, if you put 100 engineers in a room when she was attending UVM in the 1970s only nine of them would have been women. Flash forward more than four decades and the comparable figure now stands at 14.
“More women are going everywhere except engineering,” she said, noting women who steer clear of careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics are foregoing a calculable — 33 percent — increase in their annual earnings.
“Math is a building block skill for any of those careers,” she told participants who ranged from 20-something students at UVM to women who are at or nearing retirement age.
Bombardier was introduced Saturday by Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., who started the conference 16 years ago.
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