Sunday, November 15, 2009

Math Prize for Girls highlights

A century ago, suffragettes gathered in Cooper Union's Great Hall, agitating for the right to vote for women. I believe they would have been bursting with pride if they could have seen the first annual Math Prize for Girls awards ceremony held in that hallowed and historic hall yesterday afternoon.

The winner was Elizabeth Synge from Massachusetts, taking home a prize check for $20,000 for top honors on a very challenging set of problems during yesterday's written test held at NYU's Courant Institute of Mathematics. This prize was yet another impressive accomplishment for Elizabeth, shown above in a photo taken last summer at an international competition in China, where she also won high honors. You can read more about Elizabeth's background here.

Joy Zheng of Washington, Lynnelle Ye of California, and Jane Wang of New Jersey all tied for second place in the contest and took home checks for $6,000 each.

Albany Area Math Circle's own Ashley Cho from Emma Willard School, who tied for 25th place, brought home a beautiful sparkling crystal engraved trophy for Honorable Mention. Complete results for the top 31 students are listed here. All 220 students took home Mathematica software donated by Wolfram as well as new friendships forged with kindred spirits talking over the problems after the competition.

It was an honor just to qualify for an invitation to such an event, and Albany Area Math Circle was also proud to be represented by Ashley's schoolmate Heidi Chen from Emma Willard as well as Anagha Tolpadi from Niskayuna High School. Younger Albany Area Math Circle students have already been inspired to work hard in hopes of qualifying in future years.

As advisor to the Albany Area Math Circle, I have attended scores of math contests but never have I attended one quite as unusual--or as visually spectacular--or as well-organized!--as this one.

I have some brief notes and observations below--more will follow when I have time.

#1) To my knowledge, never have so many young women with so much mathematical promise come together in a single place before. The gathering provided an opportunity for a girl who might have few kindred spirits sharing her passion in a small hometown to make friends and form bonds with a community of young women sharing her interests from all over the country. The students attending the event have been exchanging email addresses, cell phone numbers, and Facebook friend invitations.

To give some idea of the strength of the field at the Math Prize for Girls, the 220 contestants from around the country included numerous USA Math Olympiad qualifiers as well as members of recent US China Girls Math Olympiad (CGMO) teams who are still in high school, including gold, silver, and bronze medalists from that prestigious international competition.

#2) There were 20 excellent and very challenging problems for the girls to tackle during the 2.5 hour morning written exam, mostly created by the contest's extraordinary director, the highly talented Ravi Boppana. He was assisted by a stellar advisory board, including mathematicians from Berkeley, Harvey Mudd, MIT, Princeton, and Stanford. I hope the Math Prize for Girls will publish their problems on the website, because they will be a great problem-solving resource and learning opportunity* for all students to work on, no matter what their gender, where they live, or whether they were able to take part in person.

#3) While students were taking the written test, Richard Rusczyk, from Art of Problem Solving, gave an outstanding talk to parents with excellent and eminently sensible advice about opportunities and resources for encouraging students to develop their problem-solving abilities. I agreed with pretty much everything he said, except there were things I wanted to add and underscore. After the slides from his talk are posted to the contest website, I'll create a post adding my own thoughts.

#4) Mathematician Cathy O'Neil gave a superb keynote speech, which struck exactly the perfect chord. It's not easy to give a talk that engages a large group of high school students you've never met before who are mathematically exhausted after a morning of working on very hard math problems and who are nervous and excited about the upcoming announcement of awards and a possible tie-break round, but she delivered a sparkling talk on a fascinating topic she'd first encountered on an old HCSSiM "Interesting Test." Her discussion focused on an application of directed graph theory problems known as "chicken pecking order" problems. There are many related explorations math circle students can explore, and you can find some good related problems in Sam Vandervelde's list here.

#5) The other shorter talks were great as well. I enjoyed them all. I have sat through scores of tedious awards ceremony speeches over the past ten years--these were the best ever.

#6) The newly renovated historic Cooper Union Great Hall provided an awe-inspiring and highly appropriate setting for the awards ceremony. Presidents from Lincoln through Obama have spoken here. Many important social movements, including women's suffrage, took root here. What a terrific place to promote a new movement to encourage even more young women across the country to embrace mathematical challenges.

#7) There was a superb team of volunteers assisting with the contest, including many familiar faces and names I knew from the New York City Math Teachers' Circle or NYSML. Volunteers I recognized included Deanna Abramowitz, Tim Evans, Maggie Feurtado, Sheila Krilov, Marie Parham, Ming Jack Po, Amy Prager, and others whose faces were familiar but whose names escape me. Many of the volunteers were highly dedicated New York City math teachers, going above and beyond their usual duties after a hard week of work in the classroom.

Thanks to so much able and highly experienced help, proctoring and scoring went extremely well. I was sitting very close to the side of the stage and found myself extremely impressed by the exceptionally smooth and graceful execution of the simultaneous and complex tie-breaking round to break ties for second, fifth, and eighth place. It's volunteers like these who make such contests possible.

#8) One highly talented young woman, Meena Boppana, was present at the event, but notably absent from the competition. Meena is a Hunter College High School sophomore and already has established an outstanding record as a New York mathematical rock-star. Since her dad was the director of the Math Prize for Girls event, she was of course not eligible to compete, but she and her mother, Dr. Ranu Boppana, were both enthusiastic and very helpful volunteers.

As a seventh grader, Meena made mathematical history by winning the Manhattan Chapter MATHCOUNTS written contest, almost surely the first girl to do so. As an eighth grader, Meena ranked 2nd in the statewide MATHCOUNTS competition and represented the great state of New York as a member of the state team at Nationals in Denver. As a ninth grade freshman, Meena made the citywide A-division high school team which won the New York State Math League championship.

#9) I felt an overwhelming sense of "grandmotherly" maternal pride at this event. I don't have any actual biological grandchildren so you might be wondering how this could be possible.

So many of the participants were students that my daughter Alison had mentored through her work as a mentor or coach or instructor in programs such as China Girls Math Olympiad, MathCamp, Girls' Angle, MATHCOUNTS, and the Math Olympiad Summer Program, that I realized that I was in some sense a "mathematical grandmother" of many of these girls. In fact, some of the girls may even have been been mentored and coached by still other students whom Alison had mentored, which makes me their "mathematical great-grandmother" (or who knows, maybe even a mathematical great-great-grandmother....)

It makes me feel a little old....but I don't mind! And I also didn't mind the long lines in the women's restrooms at the was nice to see all the networking among the girls going on in the lines (and waiting in the long lines gave me a chance to dispense a few more tips to other mothers interested in starting up math circles in their hometowns.) Women's restrooms are usually relatively deserted places during typical math contests--it was nice to be in a busy one for a change.

*In my opinion, the learning opportunity is a great one for adults as well as students. I plan to work on the contest problems myself. I also have a few ideas for some who could learn a lot from working on these problems, but I'll reserve those for a separate post.

NOTE: Updated 11/18/2009--thanks to Contest Director Ravi Boppana for providing information to set the record straight and correct a few errors in the earlier version of my post. The most significant error is that his daughter Meena actually attends Hunter College High School, rather than Stuyvesant as I had previously stated incorrectly.

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