Project MISS Participants - Summer 2007

Project MISS students who are spending the summer working on calculus gather on the steps of Langsdorf Hall.


“It’s Our Job” to Help Girls Excel in Math, Professor Says

July 31, 2007

By Russ Hudson

David Pagni, recipient of the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring, stands quietly at the back of the classroom. He is on the sixth floor of Cal State Fullerton’s McCarthy Hall, on a warm and humid July day a half-hour before lunchtime.

His light-blue eyes scan. He seems to miss nothing: The instructor at the front of the class as she explains how to use calculus instead of algebra to solve a problem, the tutors wending their ways among the two-dozen-plus students in their seats, the expressions on the students’ faces as they work on the problem — some relaxed, some laboring.

Pagni takes it all in as he has done since 1990, when he began Project Mathematics Intensive Summer Session or MISS. Each summer, groups of girls from area high schools have come to McCarthy Hall to study algebra and calculus.

The purpose of MISS is to enhance the math skills of 10th- and 11th-grade girls from Orange County and surrounding communities. With enhanced math skills, young women — many from educationally disadvantaged schools — have a much better chance at being able to enter mathematics and the sciences in colleges and universities.

Project MISS - Summer 2007
Phuong Tran of Fountain Valley, left, and Rosario Diaz of Norwalk solve a calculus problem together.

But why is Pagni, a university professor, doing this? His expression, even before speaking, says much. In a voice that sounds as if he was slightly startled by the question, he said, simply, “It’s our job.

 “It is our job at Cal State Fullerton, at any university, to have linkages to the K-to-12 system. We are like sports coaches. They know every athlete in the area with potential by the time they are in intermediate school. They can find ways to offer advice and encouragement.

“These students, these girls, show a lot of promise in math and just need the encouragement, someone to show them how to be better. That’s what we do,” said Pagni, who has been awarded the highest professional honors accorded faculty members at Cal State Fullerton and the 23-campus Cal State system.

Does it work?

“We track the students who have been in MISS. Ninety-eight percent of them since we began in 1990 have completed high school and gone on to college. That is far better than the average. About 20 percent of them major in science, technology, engineering and math,” said Pagni.

About the Project MISS alumni tracked since entering college, Pagin said: “They have a much higher than average completion rate, staying with it until they have a degree. A few of them even teach in schools in the area now.”

Supporting Pagni’s assertions is a story issued by the Associated Press newswire July 26. The story cited a study recently published in the journal Science by Philip Sadler of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and Robert Tai of the University of Virginia that indicated high school students who completed more math courses did better not only in math, but in all science courses in college.
Aside from the scholars, what do the students say?

“I want to go to Cal State Fullerton, or maybe, I guess, San Diego State so I can get a degree and become a math teacher. If not a math teacher, then an engineer, probably a structural engineer,” said Chandra Worley, who will be a junior in the fall at Rowland High School in Rowland Heights. “This MISS course is really helping me. They explain a lot, and explain it better, at least for me. I understand some things now I didn’t before.”

“My math skills are getting stronger. I’m learning a lot of new strategies to solve problems,” said, Janet Perez, who will be a junior in the fall at Bellflower High School in Bellflower. “I want to get a doctorate in biochemistry and become a professor,” she said.

Haylie Patterson is planning to become an electrical or mechanical engineer “so I can build things to be better and safer.” Cal State Fullerton, she said, is her top choice, but, she added, she feels for her own sake she should do some looking around, too.

And what is she getting from MISS? “I’m learning a new type of math in my precalculus class. It is so different from Algebra II!”

The MISS class is a real boost for Posin Wang, an incoming junior at Rowland High School. “I jumped a grade, so this summer course is a refresher and a builder of my math foundation so I can advance,” she said. Wang’s ambition is to be an architect or an engineer — she’s not sure what kind of engineer yet — or both, and Cal State Fullerton may be one of her stepping stones.

The youngest girl in the MISS project this summer is Linda Kha, who will be a sophomore this fall at Garden Grove High School. But being the youngest hasn’t dampened her ambition: “I want to be a neurosurgeon,” she said, firmly and matter-of-factly, as if the signatures were already on the dotted lines. “I was always pretty good in math, but this course sure is making me brush up on my skills.”

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