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Mathematics Doctoral Student Helps Girls Talk Math at UMD

imageBy Anna De Cheke Qualls

Girls Talk Math at UMD runs largely on passion. Doctoral student Sarah Cassie Burnett, with assistance from Cara Peters, founded this summer program for high school girls two years ago to broaden participation and mentoring in the field of mathematics.

The Maryland site was modeled after the program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC). Then graduate students Francesca Bernardi and Katrina Morgan established it there in 2015, to build a curriculum that addressed issues of persistence, equity, and representation.

"The lack of women in mathematics can feel like an impossibly big issue to tackle, but there is extensive research suggesting why women self-select out of math: girls often lack confidence in their mathematical abilities, don’t get the same encouragement as their male peers, and don’t see themselves represented among mathematicians," said Bernardi and Morgan, now postdoctoral fellows at Florida State University and the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute, respectively, in an email. "We wanted to build a program geared towards addressing these issues. Our mathematics curriculum design and the media component are designed to combat these barriers. It was also important to us to build a program accessible to students regardless of income. Girls are broadly underrepresented in mathematics, but the reality of education inequality hits low income students the hardest."

imageThe UMD-UNC connection is not a coincidence.  Burnett was an undergraduate there, and a mentee of Bernardi. That relationship had a huge impact on Burnett’s own career in mathematics. Once in her PhD program at Maryland, Burnett returned to UNC to volunteer in Girls Talk Math. She returned with a fire in her soul.

"At the time, I thought UMD would be the perfect place for Girls Talk Math," Burnett said.  “Our location and the tremendous resources in the area, including publication transportation, would make us an ideal place to offer this program.”

She set about the process of building a 2-week day program on the College Park campus in 2018. She and Peters incorporated the UNC model into the planning – low cost ($25/person) to all 40 diverse participants, two volunteer organizers and team leads, and free lunch to low-income students. Similar to UNC, the UMD site would also offer eight team-based curricula, with topics in scientific computing, applied mathematics, pure mathematics, and cryptography.

"The Inquiry Based Learning framework we used in building our curriculum seemed best suited for increasing students’ confidence. Our problem sets were designed to be tackled without the need for lectures. Instead, they guide students through complex mathematics and help them build their own understanding of the material. We attended a talk at UNC on effective teaching practices for underrepresented groups in STEM that emphasized the benefits of using active learning in the classroom," said Bernardi and Morgan.

As the students progress through the curriculum, they complete a research project on a famous woman mathematician related to their topic. They then record a podcast about that person; hence the name Girls Talk Math.  At the end of the session, parents and peers get to hear what each team learned.

The podcasting experience was life-changing for participant Sara Earnest.

"I took away so many exceptional and empowering gains from my GTM experience, I hardly know where to begin. In addition to gaining supplemental math skills by the inspired teachings of our brilliant UMD graduate student instructors, I interviewed a world-renowned female mathematician and physicist," she said. "For our team studying quantum mechanics, that person was Dr. Ingrid Daubechies. From that interview, which we turned into a podcast, we learned about the challenges of being one of a few (if not the only) woman in a male-dominated STEM field. Dr. Daubechies' comments, and my GTM experiences, have empowered me to now believe that as a mixed-race woman, it's possible for me to study physics on an advanced level."

imagePeters believes that the importance of exposing young mathematicians to diverse careers is also critical, including these opportunities to interview women in math who pursue a variety of careers.

"I wish I had access to information like this when I was younger,” she said. “I am still learning what my options are. The earlier you can hear those conversations the better. Knowing that math has many real-world application makes it a more versatile career path."

Burnett and Peters learned a lot about how program administration functions. They had to worry about concepts like in loco parentis, funding, grant writing, mentoring, recruitment, and building a network of champions on campus.

Aside from the organizational and strategic planning, Burnett believes that creating Girls Talk Math at UMD has been a profound leadership opportunity.

"I learned about how to involve people in something I’m passionate about, so we can all feel as though we are participating and invested from the get-go," she said. "Someday I would like to have my own lab. By developing a curriculum and having a plan, I found ways I can hopefully involve others my research, and help them grow. In this respect, energetic and enthusiastic high schoolers taught me a great deal."

As with any new venture, Burnett and Peters were nervous about enrolling a full cohort of students. Though recruitment targeted low-resourced areas, the only factor Burnett and Peters used for admissions was the interest paragraph in the program application. Attracting a diverse pool of participants remains a core value. They attended UMD’s Center for Minorities in Science and Engineering’s Parent STEM EXPO, and Burnett personally emailed every math teacher and coordinator in the Prince George’s County Public Schools.

This careful planning paid off, as the program has been successful for two consecutive summers. Early on, Burnett applied for Mathematical Association (MAA) of America’s Tensor Women and Mathematics Grant, and UMD Girls Talk Math won in 2019. The program also received some support from the Department of Mathematics and the Applied Mathematics & Statistics and Scientific Computation Program.

"We funded the program because it was an adaptation of a successful program at UNC.  The unique combination of mathematics with skills in podcasting was something that we found compelling," said Rachelle DeCoste, the Director of the MAA grant, and Chair and Associate Professor of Mathematics at Wheaton College. "The students were able to grow their confidence in their mathematical abilities, while learning skills that can apply to other areas of their life.  Also, it's so important for girls to build a community of peers to whom they can turn when other kids their age start disliking mathematics.  It's socially acceptable for people to dislike math, so any opportunity for kids, especially girls, to be surrounded by people who encourage them to continue to enjoy mathematics, and who provide fun math activities and role models, is so important."

Victoria Gabrielle Whitley, a UMD doctoral student and UNC volunteer, agrees that Girls Talk Math has been transformative for all involved.

"From the start, Girls Talk Math has been a source of empowerment for me as a volunteer,” she said. “I have watched the young women who come to the camp branch out and make connections with each other, with mentors that are on their way to completing math degrees themselves."

As the program has grown, Burnett, Peters and the team have been paying close attention to feedback from parents, volunteers, and participants.  They look at the surveys and make adjustments accordingly. The curriculum is now developed during the academic year in teams of graduate students while recruiting volunteers continues to pose a challenge.

Peters graduates this fall, and hopes to continue some of this work at The Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Lab (APL).

"APL has opportunities for teaching and mentoring, and I am very excited about that,” she said.  “Mentoring is something I would really like to focus on as I move forward."

Burnett hopes to complete her PhD in 2021, and looks to pursue a career in academia. As the founder of UMD’s Girls Talk Math, who has seen her peers at UNC pass on their program, she worries about sustainability in funding and leadership.

"We should be good for five years, through renewal of the Tensor Women and Mathematics grant, and hopefully the Tensor Strengthening Underrepresented Minority Mathematics Achievement grant," she said. "There is also the need to cultivate folks interested in running this program."

Girls Talk Math fills an important void for the surrounding community and families. It provides access, opening doors for young women of color to engage with role models and mentors in a field that has traditionally been pursued by white men.

Ayo Atterberry, parent to Adalia Winters and a Senior Associate at the Annie E. Casey Foundation, said that Girls Talk Math benefitted her daughter.

"The program provides a great opportunity for all young ladies, but particularly brown and black girls who are often underrepresented in math and science, to gain a more comprehensive understanding of complex math concepts in a safe space," she said.  "My daughter can be shy and resistant to speaking publicly. However, I saw her be confident and flourish in the end-of-program presentation. Because the different types of activities cater to different learning styles, GTM allows young women to explore and step out of their comfort zones. The two weeks also baked in key social emotional learning components that we know help young people be successful." 

Dedication to experiences like this keeps Burnett focused on Girls Talk Math.

"There was a girl from a family of nine siblings in the first year of the program," she said. "She came in with little bit of Algebra I, and by the end knew how to take a derivative. The image of this young woman standing confidently in front of a board and solving complex problems – I will never forget that moment."

(Photo Credits: UMD Girls Talk Math Program)

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