Sharing mathematics through community outreach

As part of the AMS Special Session on Mathematical Outreach: Engagement Opportunities and Best Practices organized by Irina Mitrea, Maria E Lorenz (Temple University), and Katharine A Ott (Bates College), I got to hear the experience in mathematical outreach of Dr. Katrina Morgan (Northwestern University) and Dr. Daniel M. Harris (Brown University). 

Girls Talk Math is a free Math and media camp for female and gender non-conforming high school students founded in 2016 at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  Girls Talk Math is now hosted on four major US campuses (UNC-Chapel Hill, UMD College Park, UMN Twin Cities, UCLA), and in 2020 was held virtually as a joint effort with campers from all four institutions. I was very excited to attend the session since I am a long time fan of one of the programs highlighted, Girls Talk Math.

In this talk, co-founder Dr. Katrina Morgan (Northwestern University) shared with us how we can encourage the participation of non-traditional students in STEM  by building a community that is passionate about math and communicating it to the public.

I was very intrigued by the way media complements the mathematical problem-solving components of the program. In past years, students have written blog posts about the math content they learned and even interviewed mathematicians for the Girls Talk Math podcast! Not only that, many of the activities used during the camp are publicly available through their website.

Why use media and communication to address these barriers? To increase diversity in the mathematics community.  Dr. Morgan shares that it reduces math-related anxiety, helps with understanding, increases the confidence in their own ability, and reduces the feeling of isolation by connecting to their peers and the broader community.

The second speaker was Dr. Daniel M. Harris,  a trained applied mathematician who is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Engineering at Brown University. Funnily, enough he shared that he was introduced to mathematical outreach through being a mentor in Girls Talk Math.  In his talk, Building New Opportunities: Integration of Outreach, Education, and Research, he shared how he was deeply inspired by having his research, teaching, and outreach really interact with one another. These interactions don’t only push his work forward, they made his research interests more accessible to a wider audience.

His outreached efforts are inspired by the open-source model (used most often in the software and hardware context) to increase access to maker spaces. Mostly, because it opens the door for people to take an idea or design, and create something you wouldn’t have thought of. This resonated a lot with me, in particular, because I’ve witnessed how many programs that are built this way have accessibility and inclusion as a core value. Of course, as he remarked, we keeping in mind that it doesn’t have to be perfect to be useful and that community sourcing different ideas can really drive progress and innovation.

Examples of different outreach activities from Dr. Harris.

Examples of different outreach activities from Dr. Harris.

Adapting to the remote environment:

Both speakers addressed how they have adapted their outreach efforts to a remote setting. For example, while students that participated were still from their local communities,  Girls Talk Math offered shorter Zoom sessions, incorporated ice breakers, and games (including a virtual escape room!), and modified its media component by including public events on YouTube and daily camper journals.

Also, Dr. Harris offered the idea of providing students with STEM kits, as a way to recreate the in-lab experience, and using materials commonly used at home to design experiments. He encouraged us to think in which ways these kits could be designed in a way that they can be reusable, mailed, or shared.

About Vanessa Rivera-Quinones

Mathematics Ph.D. with a passion for telling stories through numbers using mathematical models, data science, science communication, and education. Follow her on Twitter: @VRiveraQPhD.
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