To give girls a chance in a male-dominated field, Irina Mitrea removed boys from the equation.
The Temple mathematics professor created a week-long mathematics-intensive summer camp for girls only.
“Girls early on see that mathematics is hard, that, you know, somehow this is not something appropriate for them to do,” Mitrea said. “You see it in sitcoms. It’s everywhere out there.”
The Girls and Mathematics Program at Temple University is open to girls enrolled between fifth and eighth grade. Mitrea said this age is precisely when girls “face pressure” to turn away from mathematics.
“We try to give them a strong mathematics background,” Mitrea said. “Mathematics is like a pyramid. If you have gaps in understanding, this will create bigger gaps later on.”
The research mathematician took 10 years to develop the program before bringing it to Temple in 2012. Mitrea said she wants the program to be “challenging but elegant and fun.”
“We want to give a fair advantage to everyone,” Mitrea said. “All these small, maybe not necessarily intended actions that the girls face, they do accumulate over time, and by the time they get to middle school or high school they have gotten away from math.”
Mitrea recruits female Temple undergraduate and graduate students to teach and mentor the girls. Because Mitrea wants to bring “a variety of interests” to the program, the students’ majors also include chemistry, bioengineering, chemical engineering and physics.
“It is a chance for the middle school girls to become close with someone who is very passionate and knowledgeable about the field,” Mitrea said. “If you have good female instructors and good female teachers, this makes a huge difference for the girls.”
2013 alum and secondary math education major Jennifer Hartman was a mentor in the program in 2012 and 2013. Hartman said she initially joined the program because it provided experience teaching mathematics.
“I hadn’t done anything like that before,” Hartman said. “I think it gave them a sense of community being around each other and getting involved in all of these activities and seeing what math is really about.”
Sarah El, a a seventh-grade student at Albert M. Greenfield School, participated in the program this past summer.
Sarah’s mother, Neah El, said the program noticeably enhanced Sarah’s mathematic skills.
“She definitely enthusiastic about the way things were formatted with the games,” Neah said. “She did have some difficulty last school year, so I feel like she definitely got a refresher on issues that were passed over by her teacher.”
Sarah said she enjoyed the all-girls aspect of the program.
“I think it made a difference because girls can relate better than boys,” Sarah said. “Boys won’t be there bothering you and being a distraction.”
The Girls and Mathematics Program at Temple University program takes place in Room 220 and 223 of the Howard Gittis Student Center. This past summer the program ran from July 7-11, for five hours each day.
In 2014, Mitrea collected 400 more applications than the program was able to accommodate. She said the program receives “very humbling and overwhelming” feedback.
Applications are accepted on a first-come, first-serve basis. Mitrea said the girls come from different types of schooling, and many of the girls come from North Philadelphia and areas outside of Philadelphia and New Jersey.
“We’ve had a very diverse group that comes to the program,” Mitrea said. “I’ve never worked with such a diverse group before, which I think is a tremendous asset – to be able to teach kids that have all kinds of different backgrounds. [Temple] is the perfect home for the program.”
Hartman said the week was “empowering” and helped to build confidence in the girls, especially in those who seemed shy in the beginning of the program. If boys were allowed to enroll in the program, Hartman said she didn’t think girls would make the same amount of progress.
“I don’t think the girls would be as active and participating as much as they were,” Hartman said. “I think they felt more comfortable being around each other only.”
Mitrea said the Girls and Mathematics Program at Temple University has received national recognition. She was recently invited to teach a similar course over the summer at Brown University.
“What we offer is unique. The professionals are highly qualified to teach mathematics,” Mitrea said. “It makes this experience, we hope, a life-changing one for many girls. Many of our students, if they can still come the next year, they do.”
This year, a 37-year-old Iranian female mathematician named Maryam Mirzakhani will be the first female ever to be awarded the Fields Medal, which is considered the Nobel Prize of math.
“We’re on the right track,” Mitrea said. “Over the years we’ve gotten more and more attention. Our goal is to be able to create a professional network that will support these girls throughout the years, no matter what they chose to do.”
Claire Sasko can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and at twitter @clairesasko