Purdue University Graduate School
Dissertation_Zhou, Lili.pdf (3.76 MB)

A Narrative Inquiry of Female Mathematics/STEM Educators: Crossing Boundaries among Multiple Contexts

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posted on 2022-07-22, 17:42 authored by Lili ZhouLili Zhou

 The limited numbers of women in advanced mathematics courses is a critical factor hindering women’s academic and professional access to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields. Informal learning environments have the potential to play a significant role in promoting the participation of girls and women in mathematics/STEM fields. However, research that addresses the intersection of informal education, mathematics education, and women’s studies is minimal. Specifically, little is known about informal educators’ lived experiences in facilitating girls’ learning. Based on four years of working alongside Laura, the founder of Girls Excelling in Math and Science (GEMS) clubs, I conducted a narrative inquiry that explored our boundary crossing experiences as we engaged in a GEMS collaboration. The exploration focused on Laura’s narratives of her past, present, and future experiences that shape her identity as an informal educator. During the exploration of Laura’s experiences, I reflected on and inquired about my own personal and professional experiences across multiple contexts that inform my evolving identity as an educator. The theoretical framework of this study is informed by feminist theory and boundary-crossing perspectives. Feminist theory guides me to perceive our narrative of experiences from a women’s perspective while the boundary-crossing framework provides an analytic lens to understand our interpersonal and intrapersonal boundary crossing experiences. Because of the nature of the narrative inquiry, data were co-constructed between Laura and me in various forms: interviews, field notes, family stories, autobiographical writing, documents, conversations, emails, etc. I employed Polkinghorne’s (1995) narrative analysis and analysis of narrative approaches to analyze data. First, I utilized a narrative analysis approach to generate three holistic plots: (1) narratives of becoming female educators, (2) boundary-crossing collaboration in the midst of GEMS, and (3) conceptualizing mathematics across multiple contexts. An analysis of narrative approach was used to generate themes that unfold the meanings of stories, moments, and events and configure the plot. In the findings, I portrayed the three plots which allowed me to rediscover and reconstruct our personal practical knowledge across the contexts. Building on the findings, I discuss how female educators’ narratives of experiences inform their personal practical knowledge, which empowers girls’ and women’s personal and social experiences in mathematics/STEM. Laura and I cross multiple boundaries engaging in collaboration which provides an example of the boundary crossing collaboration between mathematics education and informal education. Based on the findings, I describe how informal learning STEM environments provide potential spaces to implement alternative curricula to humanize mathematics. Two evolving mathematics-related tasks illustrate our experiences of humanizing mathematics in GEMS. This study is situated at the intersection of mathematics education, informal education, and women’s studies, which significantly impacted Laura, myself, and GEMS, the context in which this study took place. This study provides an example of the possibilities of building boundary-crossing collaborations between the mathematics education community and the informal education community to empower girls and women in mathematics/STEM. Drawing on this dissertation study, one future research direction focuses on implementing and further developing humanized mathematics curricula in informal learning environments. Another research direction is using intersectional feminist theory to understand women’s differences regarding multiple social constructs (e.g., race, gender, class, ethnicity) to explicate the dimensions of inequality women face in mathematics/STEM. The study also suggests future practical work for mathematics education to foster alternative ways of conceptualizing mathematics regarding curriculum and approach. Mathematics educators could contribute to creating a learning community and providing professional development opportunities to support informal educators. 


Ross-Lynn Research Scholar Fund Grant


Degree Type

  • Doctor of Philosophy


  • Curriculum and Instruction

Campus location

  • West Lafayette

Advisor/Supervisor/Committee Chair

Jill Newton

Additional Committee Member 2

Rachael Kenney

Additional Committee Member 3

Crystal Morton

Additional Committee Member 4

JoAnn Phillion

Additional Committee Member 5

Lynda Wiest