Meet Girls' Angle: A math club for girls
You have close ties to MIT. Can you share a bit about your experience and what led you to start Girls’ Angle?
For me, the path to Girls’ Angle was unexpected and full of surprises. I left academia to try to make it as an oil painter, but I couldn’t make ends meet, so I began freelancing as a math editor in math educational publishing. As a math editor, I quickly learned how bad math education is in the United States and I got fired up to try to do something about it.
Initially, I was thinking to create another coed math circle. But at the time, a friend of mine, Beth O’Sullivan, invited me to lead a modular origami project with a group of high school girls through a program she co-founded called Science Club for Girls. That experience awakened me to gender issues in math education. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that there was a need for an all-girl math educational program run by mathematicians where girls could keep returning to further their mathematical studies. It’s not that “girls need extra help”, not at all. Rather, I saw that many girls would benefit from an all-girl environment, especially around the ages of 8-18. There are enough such girls that I think it is important to provide girls with the option to study math away from boys.
After about a year and a half of further thinking, refining, and planning, Girls’ Angle was born.
Did you engage in any public service or volunteering during your time at MIT?
When I was a graduate student at MIT, I did get involved with teaching math to school children in various ways. I designed and taught an enrichment course at the Museum of Science called “The Great Math Adventure” and I volunteered for a pilot program called Emissary where I carried on an email conversation with students in Texas and Missouri through email.
How is GA currently engaging with MIT students and/or what impact have MIT volunteers had on advancing your mission?
Several MIT students have played critical roles at Girls’ Angle by working as math mentors at our club. Mentors are the heart and soul of Girls’ Angle because they are the frontline conductors of the math educational experience we deliver. Mentoring is not particularly demanding in terms of hours per week, but it is very demanding in terms of what mentors are expected to accomplish, which is to get girls to do more math through inspiration, as opposed to assignment. More than about teaching math, mentors aim to help members improve their ability to think and solve problems. Mentors also serve as role models.
Mentors, by the way, are not volunteers. Currently, undergraduate mentors are paid $30/hour. This is because I seek women with strong math fundamentals who understand math well enough that they can go off the beaten path and allow our members to follow their nose, wherever it may lead.
For example, Rachel Burns, a senior at MIT, began working as a mentor last fall, and she couldn’t have known that she’d end up working with a group of 4 sixth graders who decided that they wanted to create their very own self-referential multiple choice quiz. Probably, Rachel had no prior experience creating such a quiz because they’re not part of a standard math curriculum. But because her fundamentals are sound, she was able to provide terrific guidance for these members and they succeeded in creating a non-trivial 15-question self-referential test. It’s not that easy to create an interesting self-referential test that picks out precisely 1 of the 1,073,741,824 possible answer keys as the unique correct answer, and it’s probably even harder to do a good job mentoring a group that wants to do so! The members had to deal with many frustrating moments as their efforts to fix one problem only resulted in other problems, like trying to smooth out a rumpled carpet that refuses to cooperate. So Rachel also had to keep their spirits up. In this way, Rachel not only created an environment where these girls could explore logic to quite some depth, but they also got a valuable lesson in the importance of perseverance.
What do you wish people knew about GA?
I do encounter some mind-numbing misconceptions about Girls’ Angle more frequently than I wished, so if I may, I’d like to answer this question by clearing some things up.
One pernicious misconception is that because we work with girls, we dumb-down the math. I was particularly shocked when a prominent math circle leader (who had never visited Girls’ Angle or spoken with me about it) pulled me aside at a conference to scold me for this. Well, the good news is that we absolutely do not do that! The truth is, we strive to do whatever is in the best interest of each member’s mathematics education treating her as an individual and we believe that all benefit from further study of mathematics. Consequently, at the club we have a wide spectrum of girls with different needs. Some are mastering fundamentals of arithmetic and we think it is wonderful that they are making the effort to do so. Others are engaged in original research, and we’re equally happy with their commitment to unraveling the mysteries of mathematics. We want to find the best way each individual grows in mathematical understanding whatever her current relationship is to mathematics.
Another misconception is that Girls’ Angle is supposedly ideologically opposed to coed math education. The truth is that we are simply providing girls with the option of studying math away from boys for a few hours each week. If a girl wants to learn math together with boys, by all means! We do not insist on gender-segregated math education. But there are plenty of girls who benefit, sometimes crucially, from an all-girl math educational environment and these girls, and, likely, also society, would suffer a loss without all-girl math educational programs.
A third misconception is that we are anti-competition. We’re not. If a girl at Girls’ Angle derives a healthy motivation to understand math more deeply from competition, then we’ll employ competitive activity. It is true that we have been focused on non-competitive event concepts for our outreach activities (such as our Math Collaborations and SUMIT programs), but this is because there are already plenty of fine math competitions, dozens in fact. But there are precious few non-competitive math activities for students. So few that we see a critical need to develop collaborative programming so that students who aren’t motivated by math competitions but do like math have mathematically robust options to enjoy.
Actually, Girls’ Angle isn’t trying to “send a message” about gender because we don’t exist for ideological reasons. We’re born out of a desire to accommodate what we perceive as a practical need. It is a fact that women are underrepresented in the mathematics profession, and we have insights into why that is the case, and the environment we’ve constructed at Girls’ Angle is designed to foster and nurture girls’ interest in mathematics for all girls (well, due to a lack of resources, for girls roughly in grades 5-12).
What is one thing an interested student or volunteer could do to help GA today or in the near future?
At Girls’ Angle we strive to offer high quality mathematical mentoring. We need women who possess two qualities: strong mathematical fundamentals and good rapport with girls in grades 5-12. If you’re such a person, we’d love to discuss mentoring with you.
Girls’ Angle has a number of different components, and we can often use help with various important tasks, such as soliciting interviews of women in mathematics, helping to arrange visits from professional women who use math in their work, doing graphic design or layout for our magazine, publicizing special events, and many other things. If you’re interested in helping, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
How has your experience been working with the PKG Center?
We’ve valued our relationship with the PKG Center from the beginning. Many work-study students have made wonderful contributions to Girls’ Angle through their work as mentors. We hope that mentors find their work rewarding and fulfilling and that we continue to have a strong relationship with the PKG Center.