by Danica Chen
The first thing people saw at the first All Girl's Math Tournament at San Diego was a splotch of pink and a sign bearing the words "Welcome all girls!" On May 4th, 2015 at the Carmel Valley Library, about thirty kids from grades 3-8 participated in the student-run competition. Some hoped to be rewarded with medals and prizes, though many only aimed to have fun. At first, the girls were shy and reserved. One fifth grade girl named Liana was crying and refusing to do any math. Gradually, though, they got more comfortable as they bonded over their favorite subject. As volunteers passed out pencils, I talked to three young girls who praised mathematics energetically.
"It's more methodical, there's no need to write. It's conceptual and straightforward." one explained.
However, the event was more than a simple way for female math-lovers to spend a Sunday, as evidenced by a brief PowerPoint shown before the event was about to begin. It explained that the event was designed to combat the widespread stereotypes in the STEM community. After all, women have very little representation in STEM, occupying less than 25% of related professions. Obama himself said that women were an underutilized resource when it came to these fields. To unlock girls' potential, the organizers of the event hoped the competition will encourage some of the participants to pursue STEM careers.
Soon, the first round began and the girls began to take a math test as individuals. The questions were all provided by Math for Service. I got some time to speak to the high-school kids who put the event together. They got the venue, talked to school districts, communicated with Math for Service, and promoted the event, eventually garnering full registration in two weeks. The three main organizers, Veronica Tang, Eleni Fafoutis, and Jeyla Aranjo, explained their cause in more detail.
“Many people have this stereotype that girls are incapable in STEM fields. It's also really discouraging to be active as a girl in STEM activities because you are surrounded by boys,” one of the organizers, Veronica Tang, said. "Last year, I went to the American Regional Math League, and the teams were selected based on math competition score. There were around six girls total out of over sixty kids. Girls in this field suffer from insecurity. They just need the encouragement and the environment to be able to develop their skills and confidence."
Everyone who helped to run the event is convinced it was for a worthy cause. Flora Yue, a volunteer, was absolutely certain the event is crucial to these girls' lives. "These kids need math. It provides the foundation for a more direct way of thinking," she insisted.
Soon, the first round ends, and the participants come out of the library for a short lunch break. Cookies, juice, and Goldfish crackers are served. By now, the girls chat like old acquaintances, all reservations gone. Even Liana, who had cried earlier, was laughing with a group of friends.
Once again, I had a chance to speak with them to see if their perspective has changed since they started. They were certainly more open and outgoing. The event, which once seemed a bit frightening, was now a fun experience.
"I like math. It's challenging, it's fun to challenge yourself. And I think it's great that we're all getting together and doing math," said sixth grade Kiara. She hopes someday she will become an engineer.
Then, the break ended, and the comfortable laughter of children turned to silence once again as they took their second test, this time in groups they formed only minutes ago. It was intended to promote teamwork and cooperation. During this time, the first test was graded, and I spoke to some parents about what they thought the mathematical encouragement would do for their daughters.
One parent is very enthusiastic about the event. He said, "There is no difference in terms of science and engineering between the genders. It is only presumed to be more suitable for males. It's changing, but women's participation is still nowhere near that of men. Things like this event will change that."
A couple more minutes slide by, and soon, the team round is over, concluding with a talk from Jennifer Fleisher, head of The Bishop School's math department. She gave a memorable speech, with many worthy lines; one in particular stood out to me.
"Your power is your ability to learn, specifically in mathematics. When I was a little girl, I loved solving puzzles. I loved everything about them. Slowly chipping away at it, the challenge, that was my reward. The best part was you could give up and bang your head against the wall, put it aside and do something else, tell yourself you'll never get it. Then later, you look at it again, and it's different, there's a new idea. A new way to solve it. And the idea that math always had another door towards progress was part of the interest for me."
Finally, the awards ceremony began, and the medals were handed out to a few students in each grade. Some girls got mystery prizes, which were revealed to be items from Bath and Body Works. Liana, the crying girl from earlier, took second place in her category.
Afterwards, the event is over, and people file out, alive with conversation about the high points of the day. Many parents praise the event. One found it a fun math environment, another thought it helped their child focus. Liana's mother said it really helped build her daughter's confidence. Both parent and student were willing to come again.
I asked Sahil Malhotra, a volunteer, if he felt with more events like these, the world would finally be perfect and girls would never again suffer from insecurity in their abilities. His reply is jaded, at first. With a sigh, he responds.
"That's the dream, right? With so many different opinions, it will probably be impossible to achieve perfection. But," he notes, "It’s better than it was a couple centuries back. It's better than it was for our grandparents. It's even better than it was ten years ago."
The event, at least, changed something. When I asked the girls if they wanted to pursue math, the answer was always a determined and confident "Yes".