If I had to credit one person with inspiring my love of math, it would be Mrs. Ayouty. I had the privilege of being in her geometry class in eighth grade, where she pushed me to work harder than I had in any of my previous classes. Recently, I went back to the middle school to interview her. We talked about her staggeringly impressive background, why she loves teaching middle school, and why she too loves math.
Here’s an excerpt from her answer to the question “Why do you love math?” (towards the end):
Here’s the rest of the interview transcribed:
What is your background in STEM fields?
I graduated with a major in chemistry and minors in physics and math. It was just 5 straight years of science.
Where did you graduate from?
I graduated from the University of Alexandria. That’s in Egypt, Alexandria, Egypt. The way they have it set up there is that 11th grade you need to decide whether you’re going to go into literature and humanities or you’re going to go into sciences.
Are there no other options?
No. Either or. Then 12th grade, 11th and 12th grade, you’d be studying all sciences, and of course English and languages, or you’re going into sociology and humanities and history and all that kind of stuff. And I was sitting on the ledge because I am an avid reader! I used to read and read and read, and I just wanted to study literature! And yet I was a good math student and science student, so I had a conversation with my aunt at the time, and then she was going like, listen, reading you can always do on your own, but science you need someone to teach you. So I decided to go with science, and at the time, my uncle was a chemistry professor and he convinced me that that was the best thing I could ever do. So, I kind of liked that idea. The way it’s set up in that university is you have one year where you’re taking all kinds of sciences and then the next year you’re taking chemistry, physics, and math, and then the third year it’s chemistry and math, and then the fourth year it’s just all chemistry. You name it, they’re teaching it. So sometimes we would have 12 hours of labs at a time because you can’t keep your experiments. You’d go home with holes in your clothes because of all those. It was intense.
So how did you go from chemistry to math?
Oh I took a lot of math with the chemistry. Because I’m moving from Egypt coming here, and working in chemistry, it was not easy to go and find a job right away, and then at the time, I also had to go back and take tons of classes again to equate and show them that this is my degree and so forth. Then I went for one year at Duke University and then I studied microbiology and genetics, a little bit of this, a little bit of that. I worked in a lab and it was a nondegree program and by then I decided, you know what? I always loved teaching and I really want to be in teaching. So now that I have all this chemistry, what can I do with it to go back to teaching, and I went back and I got my master’s degree in curriculum and instruction, so completely different from my background, but somehow I started bringing the two together, so when I started working, I still did not have a credential to teach, but I had all that math and science. I started my phD also in curriculum and instruction but I never finished the dissertation for that because I had to travel and go back to Egypt. I worked with the Diocese of San Diego, and I didn’t need a credential for that, and with my science background, I started teaching biology, honors biology, anatomy, physics, and math… Everything. I taught everything over there. It was 17 years of high school. Then, at that time, I started saying, “I need to focus.” Math was my thing, so I went and got my credential in math. The day I got my credential in math, Poway here was going like, oh no with math and credential and all that background, we’re taking you. I ended up in the middle school, and I thought of going to the high school at one point, but I had some parents and a couple of teachers who were going like, “You’re making a difference with the eighth graders.” They said, “This is it before they go off to the high school. If you try to get to them in high school, it might be too late. But eighth grader, you’re making a difference, stay here.” I listened to them and I like it. I like staying here and I hope I am making a difference. With you, I’m hearing it from you, but from others, I don’t hear it, but maybe later. If I’m touching any of my students, and make them become serious about their future and sending them off then I’m a success with that. I’m happy with that. I’m content.
Why do you think it’s important to foster an environment that encourages young women to pursue careers in STEM?
We’ll try and focus on the girls, but I see it in the boys also, but some of them don’t realize that by eighth grade, you really need to have some goals about your future. I mean, I sit in parent conferences, and I go, “What do you want to be?” And they look like “what??” And I go “Put some goals, put some things, some dreams. Where do you want to be, where are you going to be in a couple years from now? Because soon colleges is around.
Yeah that’s sneaking up on me.
Yeah, it does sneak up! The moment you’re in high school, that’s pretty much it. I think it’s important because, you know, that old rule of being at home, and being the mother, and the caregiver is not enough anymore. I mean, here I am. Look at me. I was in Egypt and I could have married like all my friends young and they all had their hope chests and had those amazing big weddings, and I just, I just never fit in there with that kind of picture. I wanted to know more. I wanted to learn more, kind of a Disney movie type of thing, just tell me more! When I came to the states the first time at 18, I just lit up, going “Ohmygod, there was so much to learn.” That’s why I came to colleges here, even on the nondegree program.
How are the colleges here different?
Ok, I’ll tell you something. I felt, and I’m going to compare myself to my cousin, as long as I was in school, and I grew up in a private British school with a British system, British curriculum and everything. He was growing up here, I was growing up there. I was ahead. I was definitely ahead. Until we went to college. Suddenly I could not catch up with him. He was way ahead because the way the material is delivered and the way you’re allowed to learn the stuff is that you really need to understand it. It’s ok to discuss, and you come back and look at it, whereas we were just given the material. This is what you need to know. Done.
So no exploratory?
Not much, not much. It was very very rigid. When I came here and I started getting all that different way of learning, it just filled that gap that I had.
Is common core kind of like that?
Common core is just like that.
So it’s basically taking the information that we already know, but having these students figure out why?
There’s two types. It also depends on the book. The common core, the integrated math book is really good because it allows you to think, interact with the material, interact with other people, talk about it, come up with inclusions, talk about it with the teacher.
That was actually one of the things I loved about geometry – when we would have proofs and we would talk about the different ways to solve a problem.
But in geometry we didn’t get enough time. It was more me delivering the information all the time, whereas with common core, I stand back, and they think about it. They figure the answers and then they come up with ideas, they come up with answers. Then we discuss it and we go like “Oh! We accept that because this is how it works.” It’s just a really good way of learning also. I love that.
It lends itself to research later, right?
Oh yeah. I mean I tell my students, I mean I don’t see them as, you know, gender-wise, I tell everybody in here: it’s either you’re going to learn how to discuss and participate and get your voice heard, and then you can go out there and lead and have other people listen to you, or you’re just going to be the receiving person. You’re just going to be at the receiving end. You’re going to end up in a job, and people are going to tell you what to do, and you’re just going to do it and that’s the end of that. Then you bring examples of things in life because that’s the whole idea of education. Can you come up with ideas? Can you solve problems? Can you follow through on them? Can you lead? Yes, we encourage women in our school here.
Why do you think that there’s so few women in STEM though? Because women in STEM do represent a minority. For example, take our robotics and programming classes – I’m not in them because I can’t fit it into my schedule – the teacher said that in all her classes, she only has about 3 girls total.
Take a look at even our society. We’re still pushing makeup and pushing fashion and pushing this, when was the last time you saw ads with women being pushed to science? We say equality, equality, but we’re still pushing for that. When was the last time you sat with someone and said I think it’s a-ok for the woman to be the breadwinner and for the man to be the stay-at-home dad? When do you see that? It’s a society thing. Society has to start seeing women differently. I look at families, and you’d think maybe because my background is from the Middle East, that it’s a Middle Eastern thing, no I see it everywhere regardless of where your origin is from. You know, it’s ok for the guy to do one thing, but they hold the women to a different standard. “Oh you can’t do that. You can’t be that late. You can’t do this – oh but your brother’s ok.” And I go like, really? It’s ok to think that I still get to some of the girls in my class – you may have heard me in your class, when they get all giggly, and it’s ok for women to be all hehehe and I’m going like, what is that? Why do you want to portray yourself as not a smart person, but the giggly girl with the eyelashes and the makeup.
Well, to be fair, I think that you can also still be feminine.
Feminine, but not silly. Feminine I appreciate. That’s part of who we are. I mean, I wear makeup every day, and that’s feminine. But I’m not going to sit and giggle over stuff and be silly because it’s cute. It’s different. It’s a behavior. I talk to them and I go like, come on. You wouldn’t expect that from your peers doing that. Then suddenly they start changing their behavior. So I think it’s a society thing. Society is not helping much. Yet.
This may be kind of biased, but if you had to rank them in order of importance, how would you rank science, technology, engineering and math?
Science, technology, engineering, and math. One doesn’t exist without the other, but I’d say you need the math to get to everything. I remember when you’re talking astronomy, and you’re talking the black hole, you’re talking universe and the other universe, how they twist – you need the math. You need the math to even understand it, to get there. Technology without the math – look at the first computer, you know? I would say math would come #1. After that, I mean, well, science includes engineering and technology, so I would say math. Science I wouldn’t think of except as a character trait. If you don’t have the curiosity to go out there and look and test and test again and so forth, you wouldn’t have had the technology or engineering. Engineering and technology, aren’t they more or less the same? I mean, I know why my son went into biomedical engineering. He saw that report on the news with the kids as Cal, one of them had an accident and was completely paralyzed, and they built an exoskeleton for him so that he can walk and take his degree. He saw that, and he goes, “I want to be there. I want to do this.” He finished his biomedical engineering, and now he’s applying to go into med school. That was amazing. They showed us the student going up with his peers in his exoskeleton, walking. They built it together, so when we went to go look at it, and we saw that, and we saw what they were doing, he goes like, “I want to do this. I want to create that.” Technology, where would we be without technology? I mean I always ask him, and I ask you, what is the one thing in technology that is going to make you be in awe, going like, “Oh I can’t believe this.” I mean, I remember my mom when we got our first VCR and stereo system. She would be too scared to touch the play button because she’s afraid she’s going to mess up something, or “How do you do this?” I’m kind of thinking of myself as I get older. Yeah, I manage to get iPhones, iPads, and computers, and laptops. I still remember we had the phones that was attached to the wall with a long wire. We started from way back when, and everything with these phones, they go round and round. Technology is a big jump in my lifetime, and I don’t know for how long I can keep teaching and reteaching myself and moving along with it. I am sitting here waiting to see what would get you completely in awe because that’s coming. You buy one thing to be on the edge, and then there’s something else, there’s something else. Up till now, I’m in with it. Though, I have to admit that I am not a social media person. By the time you learn on thing, it’s another, it’s another, and I figured I don’t want to deal with this. I’m already giving up on this. I’m standing back a little bit here. I just want to know what’s going to amaze you.
So you already mentioned the exoskeleton, what are things that have happened or are happening in the STEM field that have been really interesting to you?
The technology. It’s just amazing. That’s just half what we know. I know there’s stuff in the labs that we don’t know about. What I’m waiting to hear about is in the genetic engineering. That is just another big deal out there that is mind-boggling when you think about what they’re capable of doing that we don’t know about in the labs. I know that they’re going to be able to regenerate body parts. My niece, when she had her baby, she kept the stem cell. She’s still saving it. I’m going like, good for you. Because one of these days if your daughter needs a body part… You pay a certain fee, they keep it for you, the stem cell from her daughter’s birth because you can collect it then. Who knows? She might need a heart, she might need a kidney, who knows what they can create from that stem cell if the daughter ever needs it. I’m pretty sure they have big technologies already and they’re testing it. It’s just amazing what’s out there that we don’t know about. When I was little I worked – I didn’t work, I helped – my uncle who worked at the University of Baltimore. They did tests and stuff and they used to come and work on the cells from stingrays and the electric shock that they give. We used to help him collect that tissue. He’d bring it in and do his tests. They had a big research program at the University of Baltimore with all his grad students. This is old story, old school, so can you imagine what is out there? A lot of that stuff is fascinating. That’s why I like to look at a lot of those science fiction movies because I look at it and I go like, that could happen, and that could happen, and possibly they already know how to do this. It’s not just imagination anymore.
What advancements do you want to see in the STEM field? Is there anything that you’re hoping for?
I am hoping that we have more women in there. In my family, education is a big deal. All of my aunts were university professors in science. All my cousins are doctors, male and female. That idea of not having women in science is more obvious in the United States than in Egypt, believe it or not. There are a lot of women in science and so forth over there. But, they’re not getting the same education, the same quality of education. They’re not getting the same research abilities. They’re not as good as our scientists here, but they’re trying. Women there are equal paid with men. This is not happening here. Then you have the inequality of girl and boy. Some families will go like, you go to college, you stay home. You marry late, you marry young. You get that other end of the spectrum. I wish there was more seriousness to education and to goals and stuff, and that’s what I’m doing here.
Why do you love math?
Oh gosh. I guess it’s just the way my brain functions. My sister always goes, “Your left brain! Your left brain, you’re good at math.” Since we were little, my sister had difficulty with math. It could be because she had a horrible teacher. We were in a German school before the British school at the time, and her Fraulein was really nasty to her, so she hated math. I would see her go to my father. My father’s brain is brilliant at math. He does mental math like nobody’s business. He remembers numbers like nobody’s business, so he would go fast with her. She would go, “I don’t understand,” and he would lose his patience. I learned, second daughter, I learned! I go over there, and I say, “I don’t understand this problem.” He starts explaining, and I go like, “Could you write it down because you’re going too fast for me?” Then I would take it, I wouldn’t understand what he was saying, but I would take it and look at it until I figured out what he was trying to explain. Then I would get a great sense of satisfaction: “I get it!” It started little. I don’t know why. I always said it in class, everything has to be in boxes. I like everything neatly solved. There’s a reason for every step. It makes sense. It fits. Then, I’m not very artistic, which is sad. It could be because it was really never nurtured or cultured. In Egypt, I was in choir, but we didn’t have music. We didn’t have anything else. It wasn’t cultivated, so I stuck with the sciences. I love choir. I mean, that’s the one regret that I have, that my son did not go into choir. He’s amazing with math and science and so forth. The one thing he regrets, and I regret, is that I didn’t encourage him to get into choir when he was in high school.
I love choir. Choir in high school is the best decision I’ve ever made.
That’s the one thing that he regrets and I regret, both of us. You need the arts with the math. Somehow, it brings it all together. That’s my one regret, that I didn’t encourage him to do choir. He was going like, “Well I want to do computer design,” and I was going like, “Fine, fine.” I encouraged the technology, but I should have encouraged the choir. Both of us look at each other, and if we had to redo it again, it would’ve been choir over that.