Today, the US math educational landscape is speckled over with math competitions. There are so many, in fact, that one might get the impression that advanced mathematics is a competition. Even in competitions that have a team component, the teams still compete against each other. Yet so much math is actually accomplished today through collaboration. So for years I wanted to create some kind of math intense event that was just as compelling as the math competition but without the competitive, ranking aspect.
When Girls’ Angle’s first semester of existence was drawing to a close, I made a small treasure hunt for the girls. I brought in identical gifts for each member, but to find their gift, each girl had to locate precisely where her gift was “buried” on a big map of Cambridge. Each girl was given a math problem. Solve the problem and find the location! When a girl thought she had the solution, she’d go to the map (which was on a computer) and erase away the area where she thought her treasure was hidden. If she was right, the word “Yes!” would appear in that spot on the map. You can read more about this mini-treasure hunt and see a “Yes!” in Volume 1, Number 2 of the Girls’ Angle Bulletin.
The next year, I brought in a big box of gifts. But when the girls went to open the box, they found it tightly wound with ribbon that was held together with two combination locks! When they protested, I handed them a stack of math problems. To get their gift, they had to solve a bunch of math problems whose solutions clued in the combinations of the locks. (See Volume 2, Number 2 of the Girls’ Angle Bulletin.)
That event proved so fun, we turned it into a tradition.
At the end of every semester, these “math treasure hunts” became more and more elaborate, and I started getting pretty good at timing it so that the members would sometimes open the last lock with just minutes to spare.
Then, about two years ago, it suddenly dawned on me that these math treasure hunts were the non-competitive, math intensive event I was looking for! After all, there is no incentive for any girl to withhold information from another because they either all succeed together in cracking the locks or they all fail together. There’s no competition of any sort, neither at the individual nor at the team level. In fact, girls have every incentive to help each other with the math so that they can all succeed!
Another cool thing about this math treasure hunt concept was that because the girls all work together, the problems could include ones that were deeper and richer than the typical math contest problem.
But creating such an event for the general public is a huge undertaking. There are a lot of logistics to work out and a boatload of math problems to construct. I began discussing the idea with others, but the discussions always petered out. Some would think it a good idea, but too much labor. Interestingly, some thought the idea terrible…because there was no competitive element! And some of those would proffer that without a competitive element, there wouldn’t be any motivation.
This past summer, Anne Juan, an undergraduate at MIT contacted me on behalf of MIT’s Undergraduate Society of Women in Mathematics (USWIM). She suggested we do a joint project and wondered if Girls’ Angle had any ideas for one. Well…
So discussions began between Anne, USWIM President Hilary Monaco, and myself. Instead of petering out, things began inching forward, and so today, USWIM and Girls’ Angle are collaborating to bring the traditional end-of-semester math treasure hunt out of the club and to the general public in the form of SUMiT 2012, a fun-filled, fully collaborative, math-intensive event for girls.
SUMiT 2012 will be limited to 30 girls in grades 6-10 and take place on January 21 at MIT. SUMiT 2012 promises to be the first of many SUMiTs which we hope will grow into a major weekend extravaganza with girls from all over the country participating in an exciting event where participants immerse themselves in mathematics while making fast and lasting friendships as they combine their thoughts and solve the problems.
Although SUMiT 2012 grows out of the in-club math treasure hunts, it is going to take place on a grander scale and have a richer story. To pull this off, USWIM and Girls’ Angle have been working closely together for months sharing ideas and divvying up tasks. For example, the beautiful SUMiT website was designed primarily by USWIM member Yuxin Xie who also made an awesome contribution to the story line, which we’re keeping a secret!
All in all, things are really coming together and if you’re a girl in 6th-10th grade who enjoys math and would like to meet other girls who like math and make new friends as you work together on math problems toward a common goal, I think you’d love SUMiT. Registration opens December 5. Also, because we are limiting SUMiT 2012 to 30 girls, and because we want to create an inclusive event, we decided to accept girls on a first-come-first-served basis. That way, if you don’t get in, you’ll know that it has nothing to do with your math abilities. It just means that 30 other girls registered before you. Hopefully, some day SUMiT will have grown large enough that we’ll be able to accommodate every girl who wants to take part.
For more information, please visit the SUMiT page.