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On Sept. 27, a warm Saturday afternoon, 270 students, their families, and volunteers gathered in MIT’s Kresge Auditorium to hear the results of the Math Prize for Girls competition, the world’s largest math prize for female students in grades 7 through 12.
Earlier that morning, the students spent more than two hours working through 20 short-answer problems in algebra, geometry, and trigonometry, vying against some of the most competitive "mathletes" from the U.S. and Canada for tens of thousands of dollars in prize money divided among the top 10 finalists. First prize went to Celine Liang, a junior at Saratoga High School in California.
But the matter of who would take home the top prizes was neither the first nor most important question to settle in the auditorium that afternoon. The more pressing question would be, as Arun Alagappan, co-creator of the Math Prize for Girls and president of the Advantage Testing Foundation asked: “How do you do math like a girl?”
Finding an answer is no small matter, given the glaring gender gaps in math and science in the U.S. Negative stereotypes about women’s ability to excel at math discourage many students from pursuing math, often before they have a chance to discover their talent and passion for it. Alagappan says this gap emerges as early as middle school, “when too many smart, hardworking girls lose their confidence and lose their footing.”
As women advance through high school, college and beyond, they find fewer and fewer female peers and mentors to encourage them to persevere in their pursuit of math — role models who can help them imagine themselves as female mathematician.
Math competitions for middle- and high-school students are no exception to the gender gap: The competitors are predominantly male. It can be dispiriting for female competitors to find themselves in a sea of “boys, boys, and boys,” as Math Prize for Girls alumna Sindy Tan puts it.
Yet these competitions can be an effective way to cultivate a lifelong love of math in students. Anna Ellison, a senior at Newton North High School in Massachusetts and four-time Math Prize for Girls competitor, started participating in math competitions in sixth grade. She didn’t have a particular passion for math to begin with — she joined the math team because, she says, “I thought it was cool.”
She found that she needed to hone her math skills to be competitive, so she began taking extracurricular math classes. But soon she was pursuing math for its own sake, doing self-directed reading online and in textbooks. This year, she’s taking a class in multivariable calculus.
The Math Prize for Girls was founded in 2009 by the Advantage Testing Foundation to make sure students like Ellison have a chance to discover a love of mathematics and be part of a community of peers, mentors, and role models that many aspiring female mathematicians are missing. Each year, competitors are given opportunities to network with their peers and Math Prize for Girls alumnae at events such as a lunch held after the test and a games night hosted by Microsoft the evening before. At each awards ceremony, they hear from women in mathematics who share their work and their experiences, showing the participants different ways to “do math like a girl.”
In this year’s award ceremony, Alagappan contended that the answer to his question — “how to do math like a girl?” — is “brilliantly.” He went on to say that, “Doing math like a girl, doing math like a woman, means approaching problems with imagination and persistence and grit and power.”
MIT professors and industry leaders who spoke after him provided ample evidence for his assertion. Gigliola Staffilani, an MIT mathematics professor and member of the Math Prize for Girls board of advisors, discussed the frustrations and ultimate triumphs of working on complex mathematical theorems. Dina Katabi, an MIT professor of electrical engineering and computer science, showed the audience her new mathematics-based wireless technologies that can track movements behind walls and monitor heart rates remotely. Noelle Faris, president of the Akamai Foundation (one of the event’s sponsors), shared how mathematics developed at MIT was used to create new technologies at Akamai to support internet access. She invited Math Prize for Girls participants to think of themselves as mathematicians and inventors.
Katie Sedlar, an MIT sophomore and Math Prize for Girls alumna, was also among the speakers. Sedlar urged participants to continue as mentors and leaders in mathematics. She emphasized the importance of building mathematics communities that welcome girls and women, especially since they so often face discouragement and lack support. Sedlar believes that one such welcoming community can be found at MIT.
“We love holding the Math Prize at MIT,” she told the audience, “because MIT maintains an outstanding record in supporting and encouraging all its students and faculty. Women as well as men persist in their efforts to solve the hardest problems.”