By Danica Chen, Del Norte High School
As the All Girls STEM Society began its fourth annual All Girls Math Tournament on April 15th, 2018, it was clear to see how much the organization had grown since its inception three years ago.
For one, the room was packed: over a hundred girls from 64 different schools had signed up for the event, almost triple the amount that had signed up for the first tournament in 2015. The organization’s reach had clearly grown as well: while the event began in the Carmel Valley Public Library, this year it was hosted at the Mission Valley Public Library, which is just one of the many libraries, such as the La Jolla Riford Library, Pacific Beach Library, and the North University Community Branch Library, that AGSS has expanded to. Not only has AGSS spread to new libraries, it has taken root at science fairs, schools, and even new states, as the organization established another branch in Hampton Roads that has flourished as much as its original San Diego counterpart. But the clearest evidence of how much the group has achieved is seeing just how many girls at the fourth annual math tournament had stayed with the organization for years, some even for its entire run. These participants had grown up with AGSS in their lives, had returned to it event after event, and none of them show any signs of stopping.
One returning member was Hermione L., who attended last year’s math tournament and a variety of science workshops since. She loves every event but claims her favorite is the chemistry workshop because it "did the skittles colors at the end”.
She likes the math tournament as well, noting the sense of accomplishment she feels at being able to tackle some of the harder problems: “I like participating, I like being able to do the math even when it’s hard. It makes me feel proud."
Another long-time participant was Kasie L., wearing a white and pink AGSS shirt to the event, who had attended the All Girls Math Tournament in 2015, the very first AGSS event. When asked what about the organization made her stick with it for so long, she responded with a playful tone.
“The food is good, and I get to harass the volunteers,” she joked, referring to the recurring team of volunteers that had become friends with many of the girls. “But to be honest, All Girls was the first thing that helped me get really into STEM."
I asked her if the organization had made math cool, and she instantly shook her head.
“No, math is never going to be cool,” she said with a smile. “But it is interesting.”
The event began with a short presentation about the structure of the event (individual rounds of competition first, followed by a team round) and about the medals and prizes that would be awarded to the winners. The medals, one gold, silver and bronze medallion for each grade, were clearly a lure for some of the girls, who were blatant about their competitive spirit.
“I came here to try to be the best,” said Abirami A. simply about her reasons for coming. When asked what she was looking forward to? “Trying to do my best.”
Jody H. shared a similar sentiment, telling me, "I want to win the gold medal, or the silver, or the bronze, preferably the gold but silver is good too because you’re not really good or really bad, but of course winning gold is really good too.”
However, though many were eager to earn medals, judging by the chatter of excitement that swept the room when the prizes were mentioned, namely cute erasers and pencil cases decorated with cats or elephants, just as many girls were invested for the fun side of the competition. And Abirami and Jody make it clear that even without an award, they would still be passionate about mathematics.
"I like math, it’s my very first favorite subject since its easy and fun to learn new things. And math is very useful for real life,” Abirami comments.
Jody tells me her favorite math fact, stumbling slightly over pronunciation: “Googolplexian is the biggest number that has been identified."
Then the presentation wraps up, and the competition begins. A few volunteers stay inside to answer questions during the round while the rest go outside to prepare for grading. The room goes silent as each girl focuses intently on her test, only occasionally looking up to glance around the room or ask for clarification about a question’s wording.
After the individual round concludes comes a break, and the girls flood outside to be first in line. The girls often espouse their love for the break time, commonly citing the food, chocolate chip cookies and bananas, as one of their favorite parts of the workshop. One of the volunteers handing out the snacks was Lindsay Wright, who was once a participant in All Girls STEM Society events. She had discovered the group in eighth grade, participated in the coding workshops and the solar eclipse workshop, and decided to join as a volunteer in ninth.
“The workshops were always fun and the volunteers helped a lot when I had questions, and now not only can I learn more about science and myself, I can give that experience to others,” she says about her decision to volunteer. "It makes me feel like I’m helping a higher cause."
That cause, and the underlying cause of AGSS, is to inspire young girls to pursue STEM. Women are underrepresented in a majority of STEM fields, taking up only about a fourth of all STEM professions. All Girls STEM Society and members like Lindsay seek to assuage that problem by giving the next generation of young women a place to learn about and develop passion for innovative STEM fields.
“I like science and the way I see it, within the next few years it will not be practical for STEM continue to be male dominated. Men and women must work together because different perspectives must come together to make something better,” Lindsay says.
She feels happy that she can teach others through AGSS, and she is also grateful for what it has taught her.
“It showed me I need to keep an open mind because I never know what new subjects will be interesting. I never knew I liked Python programming until I took the workshop, now I like it a lot.”
When the cookies and bananas ran out, everyone finished snacking and socializing and gathered together for a group photo. It took nearly two minutes to arrange everyone so they’d all be in frame.
The second round, the team round, commenced right afterward. The girls gathered in groups–some with old friends, some with new–and worked together to solve the problems. The collaborative nature of the round meant that even though the girls were in the heat of competition, as evidenced by the smiles and laughter in the room they were still having fun and enjoying each other’s company.
Finally, the competition concluded, and guest speaker Richard Rusczyk, founder of the Art of Problem Solving, gave a speech about his experiences with math to give the girls an expert perspective. Insightful, inspiring, and often funny, Rusczyk passionately urged the girls to seek new answers and pioneer the future of STEM.
“There’s been so much progress in my generation that we once thought we could never achieve,” he tells his captivated audience. “And tomorrow, when you go out into the world, it’ll be your turn."
The day drew to its close and the winners of the competition were announced. For each grade, as the names of the winners appeared projected above, cheering arose from the crowd as a group of girls eagerly made their made to the front of the room. The atmosphere was celebratory; the winners donned their medals beaming with pride and happiness as they were cheered on by a sea of supportive parents and fellow contestants. Most everyone, the girls and their parents alike, left the event happy and hoping to return.
All Girls STEM Society has grown beyond expectation in its three years of existence, but there is one thing that will never change: the smile on a girl’s face after an event, excited about learning and thrilled to enter a new world of science and mathematics.