On a beautiful, bright blue Saturday morning, as students soaked up the sun on lawns across campus, 276 girls from middle schools and high schools across the United States and Canada sat in buildings 4 and 10, puzzling over a set of complex math problems.
The students came to compete in the Advantage Testing Foundation’s Math Prize for Girls, hosted this year by MIT. The competition, now in its third year, offers the world’s largest math prize for girls: First place carries a reward of $25,000, with another $23,000 divided among the remaining top 10 finalists.
The prize money is certainly a draw for participants, some of whom have traveled thousands of miles for the chance to compete. For many others, like this year’s first-place winner, Victoria Xia, the competition is also a chance to be part of a community that they wouldn’t normally find at home.
“If you look at our math team in school, the vast majority are guys,” says Xia, a high school sophomore from Vienna, Va. “It’s nice to have events like this to promote more women in the field.”
MIT President Susan Hockfield echoed Xia’s thoughts in welcoming the competitors to campus. While Hockfield noted a continuing gender disparity in fields of math and science, she pointed out that MIT has made big steps toward righting that imbalance, with women now representing 45 percent of its current undergraduate body.
“When you’re in high school, and particularly when you’re a girl and very, very good at math, it can be kind of a lonely experience,” Hockfield said. “If you feel lonely from time to time … remember there are lots of us out here, waiting for you to join us.”
A numbers game
In order to be eligible for the competition, students had to earn a qualifying score on the American Mathematics Competition exam, the first in a series of math competitions that determines who makes it on the U.S. team for the International Mathematical Olympiad.
On Saturday morning, students worked their way through a set of 20 short-answer geometry, algebra and trigonometry problems during a 150-minute exam. While competitors and their families took a lunch break, judges scored each test, determining the top 10 finalists, and any ties that needed resolving.
As participants gathered in Kresge Auditorium with friends and family for the final awards ceremony, there was a palpable sense of relief and celebration. Many girls wore hair clips in the shape of chrysanthemums, which Mary O’Keefe, co-director of the Math Prize for Girls, handed out the night before. O’Keefe said the chrysanthemum is an appropriate symbol for physical and mathematical beauty — its pattern can be described in terms of trigonometry.
As competitors sat together and compared notes, it was clear that while they were relieved to have gotten through the test, they also needed closure: What was the answer to problem No. 7?
As if reading their minds, Luyi Zhang, a Math Prize alumna and MIT freshman, urged her peers to put aside their angst: One small error, she said, did not reflect on one’s overall ability.
“In fact, you know even more now because you will have learned how to solve the problem correctly the next time,” Zhang said. “And that’s what matters. Regardless of your score today, please know that you all have so much potential in you, and that potential will still be there for you.”
The ceremony capped off with a tie-breaking round. Eight girls were called up on stage to resolve ties among the top 10 spots. Each participant was given the same tie-breaking question, and a pencil. As students stood behind the competitors with timers, organizers projected the question on a giant screen for the audience to see.
It took four questions to finally resolve all the ties, a grueling round that would break a lesser student of math. But for junior Sheela Devadas and her “mathlete” peers, the exercise was simply what they had trained for.
“She approaches a math problem like eating a piece of candy,” said her mother, Sulochana Devadas, of Lexington, Mass. “She loves her dark chocolate, and I think she loves her math almost to the same degree.”
Arun Alagappan, president of the Advantage Testing Foundation, sought to describe the attraction to math by evoking a basic algebraic question: With the length of two sides of a triangle given, find the remaining side’s length, or “x.” Alagappan said that for him and many other math lovers, that simple question may be interpreted as a general quest, or “summons” to solve a mystery, unlocking a mathematical puzzle.
“I submit that ‘finding x’ also means finding more women, more X chromosomes, to fill the most prestigious ranks of math and science achievement,” Alagappan added. “We need our very best people to create the next Google, the next GPS, the next Mars Rover. Who’s going to be the next Bill Gates? Who’s going to be the next Steve Jobs? What will her name be?”