The idea for a math team for girls originated at a 2009 conference on Math Circles. Math Circles are extracurricular math groups in which pre college students interact with math experts for the purpose of developing mathematical talent. They have a long tradition in Eastern Europe and a short one in the US.
The conference included discussion of the
girl problem. There is a dearth of girls attending and benefiting from math circles. Similarly, math contests are less popular with girls and they are increasingly scarce at higher levels. This is a shame because some of the best problems -- for growth and for seeing the possibilities of mathematics -- are on contests that are written by mathematicians.
Our math teams share important features and values with math circles. We aim to engage and challenge even the most capable students. We develop problem solving skills. Our coaches have strong math backgrounds and enthusiasm for the subject.
An all girls group is the best structure to address the
girl problem since the focus is narrowed. The design stems from a mix of personal beliefs and best guesses based on research. The main ideas are to start early, work hard, and create a community.
We challenge everyone via an individualized approach. Each girl works at her own pace and receives help when she needs it. We develop problem solving skills. Girls who master their grade level work use supplemental workbooks with non routine challenge problems. Once they reach middle school level math, there are many contests full of good problems.
Starting early is critically important for setting a girl on course to acquire superior math skills.
With good materials and considered mathematical oversight, a child can begin to acquire a strong foundation that is unusual in US classrooms. The girls quickly see the effects of their own hard work. Being noticed and noticing oneself has an effect on identity. Coaches hear their casual confidence. The girls see themselves as good math students and see
school math as easy.
An early start can establish a habit of working on math problems. It also means the necessary work involved is spread out over a longer time period. For girls working at their grade level, the work required to do one exercise a day -- our recommendation -- is not daunting.
We strive to build a community. A research based reason for doing so is described in a paper by MIT economist, Glenn Ellison. He and his coauthor found that the top performing girls in a national math contest were much more likely to attend schools with other top contestants, than were the top performing boys. We want to create an environment where very strong skills are nurtured and common. We believe that paying adequately is essential to building a corps of teachers with strong math skills. STEM Pump hired our first coach in 2012, and now only the founders work as volunteers. The first group in fall 2009 had three girls and one coach. In fall 2015 we had three groups with twenty girls and six coaches in total.
Other research indicates that girls are disproportionately affected by female teachers who are uncomfortable with math. This guides our choice to have female coaches with exceptionally strong math backgrounds. Not only do they possess a deep understanding of arithmetic and problem solving and know which aspects of elementary math are critical to higher math, they serve as role models.
The team started in response to a national problem, and is designed to be part of a national solution. The program is designed to be reproducible in any college town. STEM Pump was incorporated in April 2009 with Athens Area Girls Math Team as its only program. The non profit structure allows for the possibility of grants and for low cost use of facilities. Moreover, it provides a saving on taxes and expenses which helps allow hiring highly educated coaches. Our registration website and payroll system allow for expansion. Our head coaches have included mathematics graduate students and postdoctoral associates. We hope to support them as they start girls math teams in new locations when they move on to other jobs.