Girls Get Math program helps high school girls build confidence in math and science

By nurturing interest in math, a weeklong program led by Brown's mathematics institute aims to expand interest and access to STEM career opportunities for young women.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — As a high school student, Abigail Siegel had a natural aptitude for math but had trouble envisioning how she might turn her interest into a career. Fast forward seven years, and today, the young professional is working in cyber security and software engineering.

What inspired her career trajectory? She credits GirlsGetMath@ICERM, a mathematics program for high schoolers held at Brown University each summer. Founded and led by Brown's Institute for Computational and Experimental Research in Mathematics, one of just six federally funded math institutes in the nation, the program’s mission is to cultivate interest, inspire confidence and instill a sense of belonging for girls exploring math and science fields.

"Girls Get Math was the first time I wrote any code," Siegel said. "I had zero exposure to computer science and knew nothing about computers, and I wouldn't have started learning about computer science when I did or at all if it wasn't for Girls Get Math."

That summer, Siegel was one of 25 high school students — rising sophomores and juniors from all over Rhode Island — who came to Providence for the five-day mathematics program. Through hands-on activities, games, interactive lectures and daily computer labs, Girls Get Math encourages students to explore mathematical topics in an open and encouraging setting. The program features a daily theme, covering topics across cryptography, data science, prime numbers, factoring and mathematical modeling. To learn about computer imaging, for example, students studied the math behind the image filters they use every day on Instagram.

With a focus on experimentation and computation, Girls Get Math introduces students to math concepts not often included in the traditional high school curriculum. Faculty leader Katharine Ott, who has organized the program since 2014, hopes it can demonstrate how the study of math can be exciting and fun to bolster girls' enthusiasm for math and science at the age when they often start losing interest and confidence.

"We're trying to show students a side of math that they don't get to see for a long time, and unfortunately, by then, they've already lost interest," said Ott, an associate professor of mathematics at Bates College and a member of ICERM's education advisory board. "We want to demonstrate different kinds of math — places where you can be super creative and collaborative, and where problems are open-ended. It's a 180 from what many students encounter in their math classes."

Emerson Maccarone attended Girls Get Math as a rising sophomore because she was eager to find new opportunities to flex her math muscles outside her standard algebra and geometry classes.

"When you are going through school, they don't necessarily show you how math concepts are applied in the real world," she said. "Girls Get Math gave me that real application that's lacking in the classroom. They helped me realize that there's so much I can do with a math degree, from engineering to modeling, and it's why I continued pursuing math and realized this is what I want to do in college."

Today, Maccarone is a math major and a business minor at Villanova University and has plans to work in finance on Wall Street after graduating next year.

Keeping students like Maccarone and Siegel interested in math early in their high school career is critical to closing the gender gap for women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields, program leaders say. While the number of careers in STEM continues to grow rapidly, women still hold less than a third of those jobs, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce. Math skills are also vital to other professions where women are underrepresented, including banking, finance and business.

ICERM Director Brendan Hassett said the mission of Girls Get Math is to introduce a variety of career opportunities in which sophisticated mathematical ability plays a key role.

"It's important for us to be proactive in doing what we can to break down those barriers and to bring as many people into this work as possible," he said. "It has huge implications for science and technology, but math is also important to understanding data and making policy decisions. It is important to ensure everyone has access to these skills."

To help expand access to Girls Get Math, ICERM created a program template for high school STEM teachers and college or university faculty to implement the curriculum at each of their schools. Girls Get Math is now a featured program at nearly a dozen institutions, including Boston University, the University of Rochester, Colorado State University, Stonehill College, the University of Central Oklahoma and the University of Michigan at Dearborn.

Siegel and Maccarone returned to GirlsGetMath@ICERM this year, held Aug. 15 to 19 in ICERM's state-of-the-art math facility in Providence, to speak to students and volunteer as teaching assistants. The two alumni will serve as important mentors and aid lessons alongside other career models and scientific experts from the field. When reflecting on their time in the program, both favored the fun atmosphere and sometimes silly moments playing games and solving puzzles together with other students whom they today still consider close friends. By returning, Maccarone said she hopes to create that same fun, motivational community for the next generation.

"I would never have thought in high school that I would be a math major in college and looking into big finance jobs," she said. "Girls Get Math gave me the confidence to realize that I'm talented and can keep going in this direction and be successful. I hope I can relay that message to the girls in the program this year so that they always stay confident in their skills and never give up."

GirlsGetMath@ICERM is funded through grants and donations and the 2022 program is co-sponsored by the American Mathematical Society and Math for America. The JetBlue Foundation provided support for hosting programs at other locations.