A day with Sonia Kovalevksy

Yours truly talking about voting paradoxes

Since 1985, the Association for Women in Mathematics (AWM) and the National Science Foundation (NSF) have been funding the Sonia Kovalevsky days, which are math programs for high school or middle school girls hosted at universities and colleges. This past Saturday, we had an SK day here at Bates, and in this post I will talk a little bit about the experience.

One of my colleagues, Catherine Buell, was the grant writer and organizer for the event, and I though she did a fantastic job. You can even look at the fancy website she made for the event (with pictures!). The goal was to bring local high school girls to campus, have activities, lectures and some socializing, and hopefully encouraging them to take more math classes and consider a career path that involves some mathematics. We had a total of 25 teachers, students, and parents from Androscoggin county, 9 college student helpers, 2 outside speakers, and 5 Bates math professors in attendance.

The day started with some breakfast and then two simultaneous talk/activities. Half of the group was in one room doing some math games and puzzles, led by Eva Szillery, and in the other room I gave a talk about voting systems and Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem called “How to rig an election”. Then halfway through the morning the students switched, and we gave our talk and led the activities once more. This was nice because it gave me a chance to talk to every student during the activity. However, I think my talk was a little passive compared to games and puzzles, so I was definitely not the fun one. It’s OK, though, I think some girls were definitely interested, and having different types of talks is good because you appeal to different people.

We went to lunch at the Commons, and according to the feedback forms this was the favorite part of the day for a lot of our participants. I don’t blame them, though, Bates does have an amazing dining hall. After lunch they did a tour of the campus, another highlight for a lot of our students. Some of them had never been to a college campus before, so this was a very special experience for them. We also had beautiful Spring weather that day, and that helped make the campus look particularly great.

We reconvened for our keynote address, by Amanda Criner, a researcher at the University of Dayton Research Institute and Maine native, entitled “Mathematics: Integrated, Hot, and For Everyone”. I thought she did a great job of explaining that not only is math cool on its own, but that knowing more math is useful in almost any career path you pick. She also talked about some of her research, which was very interdisciplinary and interesting. The thing that I think they valued the most, though, was the very clear career advice she gave, like find a mentor early on and talk to lots of people about your career plans.

The last activity of the day was led by Catherine herself, which illustrated the dihedral group through square dancing (literally, the kids would stand in a square and illustrate the symmetries by switching places). I think this was an excellent activity to end the day (none of these girls would have sat through a keynote address or a talk about voting systems after dancing to Beyonce’s “Single Ladies”). As before, this activity appealed more to some students than others (the shy, quiet ones were not at all excited about dancing in front of people), but I think overall it was a really good example of how you can use an activity that they all understand (like dancing), to explain an abstract math concept (like symmetries of a polygon).

As they left, many of the girls mentioned to us that we should have this every year, and that they really enjoyed the whole experience. I mean, they gave up a Saturday morning to go do math at a college, and they seem to have thought (for the most part) that it was worth it, which is all you could ask for.

So how about you dear readers, have you hosted or thought about hosting an SK day in your institution? Do you instead have a math circle or some other similar activity that involves local middle school and high school student participation? We would love to hear your experiences in the comments section below!


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3 Responses to A day with Sonia Kovalevksy

  1. Anonymous says:

    This sounds absolutely wonderful. Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem is a great topic for inspiring interest in math in young kids. The advice to get a mentor early — no truer words could be spoken. The only thing is, why on earth is this limited to girls only, I find that kind of offensive and sexist, I would have LOVED to have a day (or several days) like this when I was in middle school/high school, and I’m a guy.

    • Adriana Salerno says:

      There are plenty of math circles and other programs that include both boys and girls. The truth is that it is around middle school and high school that girls lose interest in math (much more so than boys), and this program is designed to inspire young girls to keep pursuing math. Sure, boys would have enjoyed being there, but there is no problem with males pursuing STEM careers (they are the majority). It is not sexist or offensive, in my opinion, to have a program that helps a group that is historically underrepresented.

  2. Brie Finegold says:

    We had SK Day at U of A in March right after spring break, but I wonder if it would have been better at the end of the year. I like the idea of rotation — in our version, there was a common icebreaker type activity, and then they split off into groups and stuck with the same activity the whole time, giving presentations at the end. This was good in that they could really sink their teeth into something and then show off their knowledge to the group. There should be a spot to share SK Day experiences… Maybe there already is.

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