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Department of Mathematics hosts Sonia Kovalevsky Day for middle school girls

Volunteers from the Department of Mathematics spent a Saturday showing middle school girls that math is more than decimal points and order of operations, during Sonia Kovalevsky Day (SK Day). The half-day event was held on April 9 in Carver Hall.

Xuan Hien Nguyen, associate professor of mathematics and the Dio Lewis Holl Chair in Applied Mathematics, spearheaded the organization and management of SK Day, along with Shira Zerbib, assistant professor of mathematics.

“It was a great day of interactive games, engaging math activities and opportunities for girls to have conversations with our faculty mathematicians,” Nguyen said. “Research shows that stereotypes about mathematicians, and a belief that you have to be a genius to be successful, keep many women away from the field, and Sonia Kovalevsky Day is a terrific way to dispel those inaccuracies when girls are young.”

Created by the Association for Women in Mathematics, SK Day is a national project which honors and recognizes Russian mathematician Sonia Kovalevsky. She was the first woman to earn a mathematics doctorate in Europe and one of the first women to be named editor of a scientific journal. Kovalevsky’s advocacy opened many doors for women in academics.

The aftermath of fun
Sixty-two students from 15 Iowa middle schools participated in SK Day. Colleen Ites, an extended learning program teacher from Summit Middle School in Johnston, traveled to Ames with several of her students.

“The Iowa State math department mixed challenging content with social opportunities for students who really enjoyed working with each other and meeting other young women who are passionate about STEM,” Ites said. “For many of these students, it was their first time on a college campus, which added to the excitement.”

Students socialized during lunch and rotated through three events that were presented by Department of Mathematics faculty:

• Claus Kadelka, assistant professor in mathematics, showed students how to use statistics and data analysis to map the spread of a zombie outbreak, using models he originally developed during the pandemic, to evaluate the effectiveness of COVID-19 policies.

• Pelin Guven-Geredeli, assistant professor of mathematics, led “Magic Squares,” a lively math exercise with a surprising twist. Students learned to construct square grids in which all columns and rows add up to the same number.

• Victoria Blumen, assistant teaching professor of mathematics, used a variety of folded paper polygons during “Hexaflexagons” to demonstrate how geometry can be interesting and colorful.

Counting on next year
“It was terrific to see nearly 30 volunteers in our department, many of them women, serving as role models for these students,” Nguyen said. “I have two daughters myself and it’s important to me that all girls grow up in a supportive community, knowing that girls like math, and I look forward to making Sonia Kovalevsky Day a tradition at Iowa State.”

Nguyen has dedicated a portion of her Dio Lewis Holl funds to ensure that SK Day remains a success. SK Day 2023 is scheduled for April 1.

“That will be really fun,” Nguyen said. “We’ll have to work on incorporating all sorts of April Fools’ jokes and puns into next year’s event.”

Amanda Fjeld, who teaches in the talented and gifted program for the Iowa Falls School District, is excited about the possibility of returning to SK Day next year.

“My students were in awe just walking across campus, which brought up several great conversations about future plans and dreams,” Fjeld said. “This was a great way to get kids out of the classroom and for me to learn about new ways to challenge these students, and we’re all looking forward to participating again.”

SK Day is also supported by the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, Women in Science and Engineering, the Office of the Vice President for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, the National Science Foundation, the Dio Lewis Holl fund and the Department of Mathematics.