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MIT Host Math Prize for Girls *September 21, 2011*

*Posted by The Raise Project in Featured Prize.*

Tags: Awards, Education, STEM, Women's Awards, Young investigator

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Tags: Awards, Education, STEM, Women's Awards, Young investigator

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“When you’re in high school, and particularly when you’re a girl and very, very good at math, it can be kind of a lonely experience,” Hockfield said. “If you feel lonely from time to time … remember there are lots of us out here, waiting for you to join us.”

**A numbers game
**

In order to be eligible for the competition, students had to earn a qualifying score on the American Mathematics Competition exam, the first in a series of math competitions that determines who makes it on the U.S. team for the International Mathematical Olympiad.

On Saturday morning, students worked their way through a set of 20 short-answer geometry, algebra and trigonometry problems during a 150-minute exam. While competitors and their families took a lunch break, judges scored each test, determining the top 10 finalists, and any ties that needed resolving.

As participants gathered in Kresge Auditorium with friends and family for the final awards ceremony, there was a palpable sense of relief and celebration. Many girls wore hair clips in the shape of chrysanthemums, which Mary O’Keefe, co-director of the Math Prize for Girls, handed out the night before. O’Keefe said the chrysanthemum is an appropriate symbol for physical and mathematical beauty — its pattern can be described in terms of trigonometry.

As competitors sat together and compared notes, it was clear that while they were relieved to have gotten through the test, they also needed closure: What was the answer to problem No. 7?

As if reading their minds, Luyi Zhang, a Math Prize alumna and MIT freshman, urged her peers to put aside their angst: One small error, she said, did not reflect on one’s overall ability.

“In fact, you know even more now because you will have learned how to solve the problem correctly the next time,” Zhang said. “And that’s what matters. Regardless of your score today, please know that you all have so much potential in you, and that potential will still be there for you.”

**Finding ‘X’**

The ceremony capped off with a tie-breaking round. Eight girls were called up on stage to resolve ties among the top 10 spots. Each participant was given the same tie-breaking question, and a pencil. As students stood behind the competitors with timers, organizers projected the question on a giant screen for the audience to see.

It took four questions to finally resolve all the ties, a grueling round that would break a lesser student of math. But for junior Sheela Devadas and her “mathlete” peers, the exercise was simply what they had trained for.

“She approaches a math problem like eating a piece of candy,” said her mother, Sulochana Devadas, of Lexington, Mass. “She loves her dark chocolate, and I think she loves her math almost to the same degree.”

Arun Alagappan, president of the Advantage Testing Foundation, sought to describe the attraction to math by evoking a basic algebraic question: With the length of two sides of a triangle given, find the remaining side’s length, or “x.” Alagappan said that for him and many other math lovers, that simple question may be interpreted as a general quest, or “summons” to solve a mystery, unlocking a mathematical puzzle.

“I submit that ‘finding x’ also means finding more women, more X chromosomes, to fill the most prestigious ranks of math and science achievement,” Alagappan added. “We need our very best people to create the next Google, the next GPS, the next Mars Rover. Who’s going to be the next Bill Gates? Who’s going to be the next Steve Jobs? What will her name be?”

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