Emory Report
May 5, 2008
Volume 60, Number 30


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May 5, 2008
Teaching girls math’s magic, mystery

Carol Clark

“Pick a card — any card.”
Not many academic seminars begin with that phrase. But Emory’s first Sonia Kovalevsky High School Mathematics Enrichment Day is something different. The May 8 event aims to shake math equations, formulas and theorems out of their textbooks and show their amazing powers to engage, enlighten and entertain.

Colm Mulcahy of Spelman College will set the stage with card tricks — then reveal the numerical secrets behind them for the 50 girls expected to attend. Emory’s Skip Garibaldi will spin a roulette wheel to demonstrate principles of probability. Emory’s Jim Nagy will tell how math and computers give us X-ray vision. Alan Koch from Agnes Scott College will show how to break the infamous Vignere code.

To cap the day, Agnes Scott’s Larry Riddle will discuss the life of Sonia Kovalevsky, a Russian born in 1850, who beat the numerical odds by becoming the first woman to earn a math Ph.D. in Europe.

“A long time ago, women were told that math and science wasn’t for them,” says Julianne Chung, one of the event organizers. “Even today, some girls are discouraged early on.”

“We want to give girls some role models,” adds Audrey Malagon, the co-organizer. “And we want them to see that there are a lot of other smart females their age in Atlanta who like math, so they know they aren’t the only ones.”

Chung and Malagon, both graduate students in the Department of Mathematics and Computer Science, hope that math day becomes an annual affair for the department.

Working through the student chapter of the Association for Women in Mathematics, the pair started plans for the campus event with a small grant. They then convinced local merchants and others to provide support, got the word out to Atlanta high schools and recruited top talent to lead the workshops, for both students and their teachers.

“Usually a high school math course is very narrow — basic geometry, algebra and trigonometry,” Malagon says. “This is a chance to explore beyond the textbooks.”

“They will get to see how math is applicable in the real world,” Chung says. “A lot of people don’t realize that things in math can save someone’s life.”

Malagon says she is most attracted to the abstract beauty of algebra, while Chung says she “fell in love” with the practical uses for math while working with Nagy on de-blurring techniques for medical imaging.

About half of the graduate students in Emory’s math department are women — an unusually high percentage. The faculty, however, is mostly male.

“Women have come a long way, but we’re still in that transition period,” Chung says. “The female applicant pool is getting larger now,” Malagon adds.