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Math Prize for Girls Thrives at MIT

Math competitions are nothing new. They’ve taken place for years, but participants have been predominantly boys.

Two years ago Advantage Testing Foundation, the public service arm of Advantage Testing, a private tutorial service dedicated to the highest academic excellence, launched Math Prize for Girls. The competition is designed to inspire girls, create a network of girls with a passion for math and encourage those girls to become mentors for others — particularly girls in underserved communities.

The third annual competition took place Saturday at MIT. First place and a $25,000 prize went to Victoria Xia from Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Alexandria, Va. Second place and $8,500 (including a $1,000 Youth prize) went to last year’s winner Danielle Wang of Westmont High School in Campbell, Calif. Julie Huang of Lynbrook High School in San Jose, Calif., finished third, receiving $7,500.

On hand for the award ceremony for the winners and other girls from the competition who were honored were girls from in and around Boston.

“We reached out to public school teachers, math teachers and math coaches in the area and encouraged them to bring their students to our award ceremony,” says Dr. Mary O’Keeffe, co-director of Math Prize for Girls.

While Math Prize for Girls has been very successful — this year’s competition had 276 participants from 36 states and four Canadian provinces (approximately a 30 percent increase from 2010) — organizers see that they are not getting a cross section of ethnicities. Therefore, a priority has been placed on outreach efforts and instilling in the participants a desire to pay it forward.

“We encourage the students who are in that math competition world to go out and volunteer as student coaches in schools that don’t offer these programs,” O’Keeffe says.

Co-director Dr. Ravi Boppana taught a program this summer at Bard College for New York City public school students. Any girl from that program who goes on to qualify for Math Prize for Girls will have all her expenses for traveling to the competition paid.

“It’s not enough to just provide financial support. You really need to go out and share the skills and knowledge to do math,” O’Keeffe says.

MIT sophomore Kate Rudolph, who participated in Math Prize two years ago (finishing in the top 10) and served as assistant director this year, does just that. She volunteers one day a week with an organization called Bootstrap that partners with after school programs for middle schoolers. Using algebraic concepts, Rudolph teaches kids how to program video games.

“It’s really hard to teach creativity in math and problem solving in math in a typical classroom setting,” Rudolph says. “I’ve had fantastic opportunities, and I know that not everyone even hears about some of these things. It’s very important to reach out through whatever means you can to let people know there are awesome educational opportunities out there.”

Math Prize Girls is open to female students from the United States or Canada who attain a qualifying score on the American Mathematics Competition exam. From the approximately 800 girls who attained the qualifying score, 350 were invited to the competition. This is vastly more complex math than what is taught in classrooms on a daily basis. It is even beyond what most teachers have seen in their teacher preparation.

O’Keeffe says it’s important that math circles make themselves as visible as possible. Participants are told to volunteer as coaches for inner city middle school students and spread the word about the excitement of math.

Due to a lack of interest or even familiarity with the American Mathematics Competition exam, Advantage Testing Foundation and the many volunteers involved with Math Prize for Girls are advocates. Some schools don’t want to administer the test because of a lack of participants. They encourage local colleges and universities who have math departments to host it. 

For now, the majority of competitors pay their way to Math Prize for Girls, but there is help. There are some travel subsidies. Local communities fundraise for trips. This year, about 80 female MIT students offered free lodging in their dorms to competitors.

“My big push and priority is more diversity in the participants — to move out into those underserved communities,” says O’Keeffe. “I want our participants working as leaders in their communities.”

“We at Advantage Testing Foundation believe that by encouraging young women to pursue the mathematical sciences, we are contributing to the diversity of higher education,” says Boppana. “AT Foundation’s whole mission is the education of students from underrepresented groups and students of modest means.”

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