How do you do math like a girl?

October 17, 2014

by Bendta Schroeder | School of Science

On Sept. 27, a warm Saturday afternoon, 270 students, their families, and volunteers gathered in MIT’s Kresge Auditorium to hear the results of the Math Prize for Girls competition, the world’s largest math prize for female students in grades 7 through 12.

Earlier that morning, the students spent more than two hours working through 20 short-answer problems in algebra, geometry, and trigonometry, vying against some of the most competitive “mathletes” from the U.S. and Canada for tens of thousands of dollars in prize money divided among the top 10 finalists. First prize went to Celine Liang, a junior at Saratoga High School in California.

But the matter of who would take home the top prizes was neither the first nor most important question to settle in the auditorium that afternoon. The more pressing question would be, as Arun Alagappan, co-creator of the Math Prize for Girls and president of the Advantage Testing Foundation asked: “How do you do math like a girl?”

Finding an answer is no small matter, given the glaring gender gaps in math and science in the U.S. Negative stereotypes about women’s ability to excel at math discourage many students from pursuing math, often before they have a chance to discover their talent and passion for it. Alagappan says this gap emerges as early as middle school, “when too many smart, hardworking girls lose their confidence and lose their footing.”

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How do you do math like a girl?