Breaking a Pattern: Female Science Department Chair, Maryke Moreau ’09
- Female Leadership
- Women in Math
- Women in Science
- Women's History Month
If you’ve ever been to Kents Hill School, recently, or in the late aughts, you likely know our newly dubbed Science Department Chair, Maryke Moreau ’09 (Ms. Mo or Rake for those who know her personally). She attended Kents Hill, she is a fierce Winter Carnival competitor and hockey player, she’s a coach, and she is a Dorm Parent in Maine Hall. Her presence is well-known and we are proud of that because she represents achievement in two primarily male-dominated sectors: science and math.
I’ve had the distinct pleasure of serving as Moreau’s co-Dorm Parent, so I’ve been able to see firsthand just how passionate she is about her area of expertise and being a visible female role model. And, I think it is fair to say that anyone around her knows that she is doing a bang-up job at it as such a young Chair.
She says her presence as Chair, “shows other aspiring young females that they can be a scientist and leader in an academic career.” What may surprise some people is that she didn’t always plan to lead a department.
She says, “When I first imagined going into this profession, I only envisioned being a teacher. In fact, during my first five years of teaching, I never even aspired to have this position. I think this was partly because I’ve been in a male-dominated discipline, and I’ve only seen male department Chairs in the previous schools I’ve worked. The other reason was due to confidence. It wasn’t until Kents Hill that I felt like my opinions and creative ideas about curriculum were worth much.”
In fact, before Kents Hill, Moreau had to actively fight to be seen in the way she now shines. She says, “There are absolutely societal barriers that limit or dissuade women from pursuing careers and higher education in my field. I’ve even experienced a few of them. I would argue that most of the societal barriers stem from bias. One of my favorite examples comes from the day I met my college advisor. It was only supposed to be a five-minute introduction meeting, but mine became a 15-20 minute meeting where I had to prove and justify my existence in the Physics program. Even though I had a detailed trajectory and plan for my career goals and a plan for making up my math course requirements, I had to debate it with a man rather than having him support my goals. During this meeting, I learned that part of the reason for the interrogation I got was because I was the first female in about twenty years to go through the program, which played a role in his tone and remarks.
“I also think part of the dissuading comes from the environment of the classroom. In college, I dealt with living in two worlds. I was in a male-dominated program with my Physics courses and a female-dominated program in my education courses. I witnessed moments of gender bias in both disciplines, but it wasn’t until I was out of college that I realized it.
It’s little things that can drive a female student to silence and quick disinterest. The best way to combat that is through support. For example, making sure you use language that supports a student when they get an answer wrong and celebrating when they get it right. Most importantly, it’s about making sure you do everything equally—calling on students, praising student success, and shutting down students’ negative statements.”
NOT a “Math Person”
Another surprise to those unfamiliar with Moreau’s journey is that, though she uses it daily, she doesn’t consider herself to be a “math person.” When we asked her “What first made her realize her interest and passion for math and science?” she laughed.
She says, “I would never describe myself as a ‘math person.’ To say I struggled with math throughout most of my life is an understatement. I didn’t learn until college that I had math anxiety, so being in a math classroom was the worst part of my day growing up. My math teacher at Kent Hill was confused about how I struggled so much in the Algebra II class but excelled in Physics. I can still hear him say, ‘the math is the same; why can’t you do the same thing in this class?’ when I’d say Physics was easier than his class.
“When I got to college, it wasn’t surprising when I learned that I scored moderately low on the math placement test for college. I knew I’d have to spend a couple of my summers taking Calculus courses to meet my graduation requirements on time. But, this was the best thing that happened to me. By having to start back with the basics, which I was reasonably confident with, I learned how to overcome the anxiety associated with math, rather than trying to do that AND learn math. This led to my first 100% on a math test since the third grade, and it was in a reasonably difficult course called Differential Equations. I still have that exam framed in my apartment. That moment inspired me to continue breaking barriers, so I decided to minor in Mathematics, which also shocked my parents. To this day, I’m not a ‘math person.’ I’m a person who appreciates the beauty associated with mathematical relationships and how math can be used as a tool to describe the world around me.
“While my interest in math is complicated, my passion for Physics was easy. It started from my first Physics class in high school. I loved it from day one. It’s a subject that explains how everything in the universe moves and behaves. I enjoyed that I could see the concepts we were talking about by simply throwing an object in the air or that I could predict how an object would move and behave and, as a result, design a machine.
“Math is nothing more than a tool to describe the world around us. It isn’t something that is bound to a classroom or a subject area. Whether you like it or not, you will use it throughout your life, and it is an important tool for things like figuring out the behavior of the universe, social justice, mental health research, and more. It shouldn’t be a tool that is feared.”
What Keeps Her Excited
It is obvious that Moreau loves Physics, but innovation within the curriculum structure itself also interests her greatly. She says, “I’ve enjoyed the opportunity to support the teachers in my department and creatively imagine our curriculum as the school continues to incorporate 4D learning.”
While she is still fairly new to the role, she is actively making change. She says, “It’s still in the works, but I can say that I’m re-imagining the scientific journey for our students and ways we can incorporate more interesting electives into the curriculum.”
Even a role model has role models, and while she is staying mum on the names, we can guess at least one of them…
She says, “There is a Physics teacher who I would regard as my biggest role model because he is the reason I became a physicist in the first place. If it wasn’t for him, I doubt I would be a teacher, let alone have a degree in physics. My teaching style is also influenced by his enthusiasm and creative techniques as inspirations for my teaching style.
“A second role model is a former colleague of mine. When we worked together, she pushed me to think outside of the box when thinking about simple demonstrations and mini-class projects geared to challenge students’ critical thinking skills. I was in awe of how she incorporated books and readings into her biology course and then had students do round table discussions on the scientific ethics involved. This ultimately led to my passion for character studies in my physics class. These are short essays that have students analyze and form opinions about various ethical dilemmas in science or character traits of famous scientists like Isaac Newton. Each day I felt like I learned something new from her and was inspired to push my creative boundaries when designing projects.”
The Big Lesson
In the same vein as self-advocacy, Moreau urges students to take charge of their academic destiny by asking questions. She says, “No matter what the question is, ask it. I tell my students this all the time. Students hold the key to their education, and you must take advantage of that power. You can turn a concept that looks like a bunch of numbers or something that may seem unrelated to the world around you into something meaningful. When that happens, you leave the classroom knowing how a concept explains how to fix your bike or how to make a change in your community.”
*Header image from a Winter Carnival prior to COVID-19