Meet the women behind UNC’s math camp for girls

Girls Talk Math encourages women to go into STEM jobs

Girls Talk Math, now in its second year, encourages girls to pursue careers in math through a two week day camp. The camp focuses on a variety of mathematical concepts and the history of women in mathematics while the students contribute to a podcast series and a blog to discuss their findings and experiences.

Headed by graduate students in the UNC Math Department, Girls Talk Math offers an experience like no other to local high school girls. The students learn from professional women in math, as well as current students, as they determine what role they may want the field to play in their futures. I had the privilege of learning more about the camp and its future plans from organizers Francesca Bernardi and Katrina Morgan. Bernardi and Morgan hope to instill a sense of a pride and belonging for girls in the male-dominated STEM world and their passion for their work shows.

What inspired the camp?

We saw the need for a space for young girls to explore their interest in math and meet other young students who also enjoy math. We also wanted to tackle the unique barriers that girls face such as a lack of representation and confidence. This is why we incorporated the media component; they actively see women doing mathematics and get the experience of creating something of their own and sharing their mathematical insights.

Why focus on high school girls? Have you thought about branching out to younger age groups?

The benefit of working with high schoolers is that they are late enough in their academic careers that we can present them with challenging mathematics, but they are still young enough that this can have an effect on their choices, such as the courses they take in college. Due to the level of math and the nature of the final products, we don’t think this format translates well to younger students.

What goals do you have for these girls’ futures?

We hope that these girls feel empowered to make decisions for themselves without feeling pressured by stereotypes and preconceived notions.

What topics do you cover?

The problem sets that the campers work on cover a wide variety of advanced math topics. This year’s problem sets covered: Quantum Mechanics, Special Relativity, RSA Encryption Cryptography, Elliptic Curve Cryptography, Classification of Surfaces, Knot Theory, Network Science, and Computing & Dynamics.

Which famous women in math are studied?

Each group is assigned a female mathematician whose work is related to the problem set they study. We choose the mathematicians by doing research online to find women who worked in relevant fields. The final list is based on building group of mathematicians that is diverse in terms of nationality, ethnicity, race, and time period. The mathematicians include Maryam Mirzakhani, Ada Lovelace, Katherine Johnson, Emmy Noether, and many others.

How do you work to create a community and space for the students to express their intellectual abilities?

We structure the program so that the mathematics is done collaboratively with limited oversight. This allows the campers to explore their topics independently and view themselves as problem solvers. Each group does have a team leader so they can ask questions and confirm their answers, but there is no formal evaluation.

What feedback have you received from your students?

The feedback from campers has been positive and has encouraged us to increase the size of the camp. Some students from last year returned this year. The girls have expressed that they particularly enjoy the environment of being surrounded by other young girls who are excited about math.

Do you plan to further your involvement in the advancement of women in math?

Yes. Both Francesca and Katri hold officer positions in the student chapter of the Association for Women in Mathematics.

What future do you see for the camp?

We have a current volunteer from another university who has expressed interest in bringing the camp to her school. We will continue to run the camp at UNC until we graduate. We both hope that the program will then continue after both of us are gone. We also plan to bring the program to any institution we move to after getting our PhD’s.

For more information, visit their website where you can read the blog posts and listen to the podcasts from the 2016 camp.