News, Science & Research

GirlsGetMath engages local high school students

Week-long camp inspires girls to pursue STEM, aims to decrease stigma surrounding field

By
Senior Staff Writer
Thursday, September 6, 2018

Since 2014, the Institute for Computational and Experimental Research in Mathematics has hosted GirlsGetMath@ICERM high school girls the opportunity to learn about math and computer science through a week-long day camp. This year, the program focused on probability, data science, cryptography, image processing and graph theory.

During the second week of August, the Institute for Computational and Experimental Research in Mathematics hosted GirlsGetMath@ICERM, a week-long day camp for girls in the Providence area entering 10th or 11th grade.

The program started in 2014 under then-director of ICERM Jill Pipher, the University’s current vice president for research. The program has continued annually, offering 20 to 25 girls the opportunity to work together on interactive math and computer science activities and attend lectures.

“What I absolutely love about the GirlsGetMath program … is that it takes a diverse group of females from around the state, puts them in a room and empowers them to get excited about these very marketable skill sets including mathematics, computer science and cryptography,” said Nicholas Bousquet, a computer science and mathematics teacher at Scituate Senior High School in North Scituate, Rhode Island. Two students from his school attended GirlsGetMath@ICERM this summer.

The camp was offered to students at a cost of $100 for the week, but full scholarships were available, said Ruth Crane, the assistant director of ICERM. The students’ tuition does not cover every expense of the program — funding is gift and grant-based. In the past, funding has come from a wide array of organizations such as the American Mathematical Society, Math for America, Microsoft Research and others. These types of donations allow the program to run at high quality with a lower financial burden on the students and their families.

“There is clear evidence that even though jobs in STEM are growing very rapidly and they pay better than a lot of other jobs, women are very underrepresented in these careers,” said Katharine Ott, one of the program’s organizers and an associate professor of mathematics at Bates College.

At a young age, girls start feeling that boys may be better at math and science, said Amalia Culiuc, another one of the program’s organizers and an assistant professor of mathematics at Amherst College.

The camp also aimed to change stereotypes around STEM. “There’s an image in the media of math being a lonely activity,” said Brendan Hassett, the director of ICERM. However, when all of the participants are together learning new math concepts at the camp, “it makes it very easy to see how math can be something that can be really exciting,” he said. “The energy is infectious.” Many events at ICERM function to foster collaboration between professional mathematicians.

One of the advantages of hosting the program at ICERM was that the girls had exposure to scientists in a range of programs, Culiuc said. This year, the Data Science Initiative hosted the TRIPODS Summer Bootcamp at ICERM, a program that brought together professionals in machine learning. The concurrence of the events gave the girls the chance to ask visiting speakers and participants about their careers.

“One of the goals is to give the group of high school women exposure to mathematics that they don’t see during their regular high school classes,” Ott said. She added that the program this year covered “probability, graph theory with applications to biology, data science, cryptography and image processing.”

Some of the activities were driven by the interests of certain professors on campus, Hassett said. For example, Professor of Engineering and Computer Science Pedro Felzenszwalb helped collaborate on the 3D printing unit for the camp.

Beyond GirlsGetMath, ICERM has hosted other events that follow a similar model as part of their aim to facilitate collaboration and camaraderie between woman-identifying mathematicians at different stages in their careers, Hassett said. One such program was the Women in Data Science and Mathematics Research Collaboration, which took place in July of 2017.

Some high school students may not realize how important math is to their career goals, and the program helped keep that door open for the students, Ott said.

Starting this year, the week-long curriculum was made available by request to other teachers and educators across the nation, Crane said. The hope is that the program will be carried to other institutions beyond the University.

Already, “there is a satellite program functioning at the University of Rochester,” Culiuc said.