Sonia Kovalevsky Day at Hood College

Yesterday was the last day of our fall break, and also Hood’s 10th annual Sonia Kovalevsky Day. I’m embarrassed to say that before my interview here I’d barely even heard of Sonia Kovalevsky, and definitely never heard of a day of celebration in her honor, but she’s hard to ignore here at Hood. At a time when women were not even allowed to audit courses, she became the first female math Ph.D. and the first woman appointed to a full professorship in Northern Europe. She published – sometimes anonymously – in mechanics, differential equations, and analysis, until her death of flu and pneumonia at the age of 41.

For twenty years, Sonia Kovalevsky Days (SK Days, for short) have been hosted at colleges and universities around the country to introduce young women to mathematics. Ours brings girls and their teachers from local high schools to campus for a day to learn about math, its applications, and related careers.

At 9am, our charges for the day began arriving. The temporary tattoos on the way into the auditorium were a big hit, both with the high school girls and our own student volunteers.


After a quick icebreaker, the girls went to their first session of the day. Some students learned about economics by manufacturing and trading their own goods, another session created a predictive model of height versus femur length to help solve a mystery, one examined latin squares, and one looked at the spread of disease using statistics (and blue M&Ms).


Blue M&M disease


Widget manufacturing for a paper-good-based economy.






After a snack and another rotation through the workshop sessions, we had lunch and watched a great presentation by two Hood students on the life of Sonia Kovalevsky. The day closed with a career panel made of business and research analysts, an engineer, and an operations manager in the area, many of whom are Hood alums. The panel was moderated by Hood professor (and SK Day organizer extraordinaire) Dr. Jill Tysse.

IMG_7158 We had so much fun that nobody minded sacrificing a day of break to help. I’ve been involved in events for women in science before, both as a participant and a college volunteer, so it was fun to see this from yet another perspective. And I know how effective these days can be – I still remember going to Bemidji State University twenty years ago as a junior high student, where I spent the day with other girls building 3D computer models and browsing through the biology specimen archives. It was fascinating to see a slice of what life as a scientist could be like. But more importantly, when social pressure pushing us away from geeky pursuits was at its strongest, we met female role models in science for the first time.

If your school is interested in putting together a similar event, I strongly encourage you to do so. From what I understand, the Association for Women in Mathematics is not currently funding SK Days, but we get support for ours through the department, local schools, and a generous grant from PNC Bank through our foundation office. If you need ideas for activities, AWM maintains a list of past workshops to crib from. It is a lot of work to put together – as I’ll find out first-hand next year, when I’ll help take on some of the organizing – but it was well worth the effort.

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