middle school mary, doing my best teenager scowl
I’ve seen a few articles circulating about the recent US victory at the International Mathematical Olympiad.
A colleague’s admission that he, too, is a former mathlete brought back my own nostalgia for those days. I competed in middle school with two of my best friends at the time, Brianna and Liz, and about 4-5 boys in our class. So ours was a gender-mixed team and if I recall, that was the norm for other schools with which we competed. The winning US high school team is, not surprisingly, all male, which mirrors my own experience — by that time in my life I had dropped mathletes for other interests (drama club, chorus, literary magazine, stage crew, working at the local library). Brianna went on to an IB school and later studied math and psychology at Carnegie Mellon (she now runs initiatives supporting women and girls in science), and Liz went to the local public high school with me and later became a rocket scientist, so why I decided I was a book person and “not a numbers person” is a quandary for another post.
My favorite “mathlete” challenge were the relay races. We worked in teams of 3-4 where one person’s result gets passed to their teammate as input for the next question. I remember both the sense of personal responsibility (I have to solve my question so my teammate can start on hers) and the negotiations that sometimes occurred when an answer was passed that simply didn’t make sense. I don’t remember how much we were allowed to talk, if at all, but there must have been some mechanism for “that doesn’t work, can you check it again?” back up the chain. But mostly it worked. And it was awesome when it did.
Coding is a lot like these relay races. No matter what the language, we define functions that accept parameters and return a result. And if you work on a team with more than one programer, you are probably going to be working on a single feature or piece of code that combined with others (dependent on, necessary for) will produce something magnificent.
We need to make that connection for our girls earlier, so fewer of them will decide (consciously or unconsciously) that they are “not numbers people,” and see opportunities instead to use the skills they enjoy as budding programers, engineers, bloggers, hackers, and systems architects.