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More than a prize

Math Prize for Girls offers inspiration and mentorship to participants on MIT’s campus.
Dean Michael Sipser of the School of Science and Melody Guan, a two-time Math Prize for Girls bronze-medal winner, in 2010 and 2011.
Dean Michael Sipser of the School of Science and Melody Guan, a two-time Math Prize for Girls bronze-medal winner, in 2010 and 2011.
Photo: Casey Henry

Bright and early on Saturday, Sept. 27, 2014, more than 200 mathletes will converge on the MIT campus to compete in the world’s largest mathematics competition for young women in high school, the Advantage Testing Foundation’s Math Prize for Girls.

Joining them will be Sindy Tan, an undergraduate at Harvard University and a volunteer for the Math Prize for Girls. Tan herself is a veteran of math competitions, having participated in her first competition in the eighth grade and continuing all through high school. Math competitions were central to Tan’s growing love of math. They gave her the chance to build a tool box of powerful problem-solving concepts and to use them in creative ways. She was excited to meet other talented people who also appreciated the beauty of math and who were eager to share their own imaginative ways of solving problems.

But when Tan looked around at her peers on the competition circuit, she didn’t find very many other women and girls. There was nothing to counter the sense of being surrounded by “boys, boys, and boys,” Tan says.

That is, until Tan was invited to compete in the Math Prize for Girls for the first time in 2011 and again in 2013. She found a community of girls and women who loved math and encouraged each other to pursue it. Now she is back to help other girls have the same inspiring experience she did.

The Math Prize for Girls was established in 2009 by Ravi Boppana, the co-director of mathematics at Advantage Testing, with the aim of bringing math-minded girls together, inspiring them to pursue their love of mathematics, and encouraging them to become mentors to others. After New York University hosted the competition for its first two years, the Math Prize for Girls has been held at MIT since 2011. Two professors from the MIT Department of Mathematics, Gigliola Staffilani and Michael Sipser — who is also dean of the School of Science — serve on the competition’s board of advisors.

“I am impressed by the achievements and enthusiasm of the Math Prize for Girls competitors,” says Sipser. “I am delighted that we have the opportunity to support the girls in their growth as problem solvers and mentors. I look forward to seeing what they accomplish in the future — and hope that many of them will come to MIT as students or faculty someday.”

In many ways, the Math Prize for Girls is not very different from other high school math competitions. Participants, who qualify by taking the American Mathematics Competition exam, must complete 20 short-answer problems in geometry, algebra, and trigonometry in 150 minutes. The exams are then reviewed by a panel of judges, who award a cash prizes to the top-scoring participants — in this case, $25,000 for first place, $10,000 for second place, and $5,000 for third place. 

But as the girls enjoy Games Night at Microsoft the evening before the competition, and while they wait nervously for their scores after they take the test, the girls will have an opportunity to meet new like-minded people, see old friends, and — of course — talk about math. They will begin to build a network of peers that will last into their college years and beyond.

Melody Guan, another Harvard undergraduate and Math Prize for Girls alumna believes that networking and mentorship are important tools for encouraging girls and women to keep pursuing their love of math.

“Math remains a male-dominated field,” says Guan, “so being a female mathlete can be a lonesome and isolating experience, which can turn girls off to math.”

However, finding a network of other women and girls who share a passion for mathematics can be a powerful experience — one that helps many girls pursue their interests in mathematics and other science fields in the long run. Guan thinks that this is why the community of girls brought together by the Math Prize for Girls is so important.

“Indeed, while there is an increasing number of successful female mathematicians who can serve as fantastic role models for math-loving girls — the most recent example being Fields Medalist Maryam Mirzahkani — they can be seen as the exception rather than the rule,” says Guan. “And in a way, there is nothing quite as empowering as finding yourself in a huge auditorium surrounded by other girls who love and rock math.”

Where Tan and Guan are concerned, the Math Prize for Girls has succeeded in its mission of inspiring girls to pursue math and science and in building a network of peers and mentors. Tan, still in her first year at Harvard, hasn’t declared her major yet, but is considering math and is a co-organizer of the Harvard-MIT Math Tournament, a semi-annual competition for high school and middle school students. Guan, in her third year at Harvard, is studying chemistry, physics, and statistics, and is an undergraduate researcher at the Harvard Stem Cell Institute. Guan assists at math camps, served as a board member at the Harvard-MIT Math Tournament, has designed and taught high school math and science classes through the MIT Educational Studies Program, and has been a course assistant to her fellow students at Harvard. They will both be volunteering at the Math Prize for Girl on Saturday.

To learn more about how you can support the Math Prize for Girls, please visit their their website.

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