35 Years of Encouraging Women in STEM

Since its establishment roughly 35 years ago, Project MISS: Mathematics Intensive Summer Session has had a laudable impact on generations of young women, honing their mathematical skills and forging connections among peers.

Project MISS welcomes respected professionals to speak to students, such as State Assemblywoman Sharon Quirk-Silva, who visited the 33rd Project MISS session.

Since its establishment a few decades ago, Project MISS, or Mathematics Intensive Summer Session, a summer education program crafted for diverse high school students, has had a laudable impact. It stands out not just for its longevity but for its recognized excellence, having garnered recognition from the Mathematical Association of America and Excelencia in Education and being celebrated in prominent publications.

As Project MISS at Cal State Fullerton approaches its momentous 35th anniversary, we’re reflecting on the program’s accomplishments and scope, highlighting its significant role in championing a diverse STEM landscape.

Foundational Learning and Experiences

Launched in 1990, this transformative initiative aims to enhance college-bound female students’ mathematical skills and foundational understanding of the subject, better preparing them to complete college preparatory coursework. Pioneered by David L. Pagni, professor of mathematics, the program was a coordinated response to a distinct trend: young women who excelled in most subjects but sought out assistance with math.

In the long term, the project hopes to bridge gender and ethnic gaps in STEM fields by bolstering young women’s academic prowess, self-esteem, and personal power, especially among students from underrepresented backgrounds and students first in their family to attend college. Meals and materials are provided at no cost to participants, and those who successfully complete the course are gifted a graphing calculator.

Since its inception, Project MISS has had a profound impact on local students, with more than 2,000 young women successfully completing the program. Of those, roughly 98% continued on to college, 20% pursued STEM majors, and 90% of Project MISS participants who attended CSUF successfully graduated.

More than just a gateway to advanced mathematics, the project also nurtures future educators. Every summer, each course is led by CSUF math education students: two instructors and two tutors per course. With this opportunity, CSUF students pursuing a math education career can gain real-world experience, and all later go on to secure teaching jobs in local school districts.

The 2023 MISS Session

The 2023 Project MISS session, running July 5 to 28, once again showcased the program’s commitment to fostering young talent. Under the close direction of Pagni, students delved into algebra II and pre-calculus, in alignment with the Common Core State Standards. Participants worked in groups – allowing students to meet peers from other high schools – and engaged in collaborative learning for six hours daily, Monday through Friday. This year, the program also featured a volunteer tutor who completed the 2022 Project MISS course, highlighting the program’s enduring impact.

A central element of the learning experience is the use of graphing calculators, which students earn the right to keep if they complete the course with no more than one absence.

“Using the graphing calculator has always been one of the highlights of the MISS program,” Pagni says. “It’s empowering. Students learn how to apply the calculator to mathematical problem solving, as well as how to code and use programs for the calculator.”

Beyond strengthening participants’ academic skills, Project MISS exposes students to real-world experiences, guidance, and anecdotes from guest speakers who are successful, respected women in their fields. Speakers for 2023 included professionals from notable partners, like Hyundai, as well as Marie Johnson, dean of the College of Natural Sciences & Mathematics. All speakers provided insights into the practical applications of mathematics and the broader STEM fields while stressing the importance of self-discipline and perseverance in shaping successful futures.

“They’re in a classroom learning about math in the middle of July because they want to better themselves, and that’s a beautiful thing.”

Dean Marie Johnson, College of Natural Sciences & Mathematics

Dean Johnson has spoken to the Project MISS students every year since she became dean, and she always emphasizes the importance of showing up and putting in the work, noting that it’s an essential part of being a mathematician or scientist.

“I tell those who show up to Project MISS that they’re already living it,” Dean Johnson says. “They’re in a classroom learning about math in the middle of July because they want to better themselves, and that’s a beautiful thing. The mentors who show up are also improving themselves. I’m so proud of them all for being involved. They deserve a lot of credit.”

Dean Johnson says that math is the language of science, so it opens many opportunities for those who study it – and Project MISS helps make accessing those opportunities easier by imparting skills beyond mathematics.

“Project MISS is also about learning how to learn,” Dean Johnson says. “It’s learning how not to be scared to ask questions, how to help classmates, and how to collaborate with others, which are essential to learning and success at all levels.”

Pagni reflected on the session with a touch of pride, stating, “I most enjoy seeing our students do a wonderful job tutoring, teaching, and mentoring the MISS students. They are so talented, and it inspires me to know they will be the next generation of educators.”

The Lasting Impact of Project MISS

Project MISS delivers multiple benefits to participants, including engagement with college-bound peers; familiarization with the CSUF campus, resources, and faculty; improved academic skills and performance; and career exploration. When combined, these benefits and experiences develop students into more empowered, active learners, as evidenced by their scores on post-course mathematics diagnostic tests and surveys.

The impacts of Project MISS can often be seen throughout participants’ lives, and occasionally, Pagni gets a glimpse into previous students’ successes.

“This past summer, I was reacquainted with a Project MISS student named Jessica Guerrero,” says Pagni. “She completed four Project MISS courses in different mathematics topics from 2009 to 2012, graduated from CSUF in 2018 with a bachelor’s in public administration, and was just elected to the Anaheim Union High School District Board of Education.”

Yet another former Project MISS student, who is now an artist, reached out to Pagni and offered to speak to MISS students next year via Zoom – from her studio in Paris, France.

Although the 2023 session has ended, the students’ learning has not. Pagni reports that many of the young women are meeting on a regular basis on their own high school campus – a reflection of the community and appreciation for learning that Project MISS has fostered in participants since the 1990s.

Recommended Articles