Girls at math whiteboard in class

Girls for the Win


Williston launches innovative new math competition

The Whitaker Bement building was buzzing with excited chatter back on January 21, as one would expect when you gather nearly 90 tween girls from Williston and 10 other schools for a day of team contests and inspirational speakers. But this event was anything but expected—indeed, it may have been the first of its kind: a math competition organized by high school students specifically for middle school girls.

The first Whitaker-Bement Girls in Math Competition—named for Northampton School for Girls founders Sarah Whitaker and Dorothy Bement—was planned and managed by the Williston math team, whose members wrote and edited the problems, handled the logistics, and promoted the event. On the day of the competition, 80 volunteers were on hand to register attendees, score problems, and cheer on the teams of female mathletes.

Underlying all the spirited fun was an important message, one that Williston Math Department Chair Josh Seamon hopes the event will help spread: Math is for girls. “Just to be blunt,” he explains, “sometimes girls face a situation where it’s not cool to be good at math. Even if they’re good at it, they start moving away from it. We wanted to create a space for a population that can be underserved.”

Through multiple rounds of competitions, girls puzzled through problems (with the results tracked in real time by a scoreboard designed and built by math teacher Teddy Schaeffer). They also heard presentations and were led in hands-on activities by Kim Evelti, Williston’s director of curriculum and a computer science teacher; Beryl Hoffman, a professor of math at Elms College; and Karen Sokolow, a math teacher at Chapel Hill-Chauncy Hall. The topics ranged from data science, algorithms, and cryptography to coding, fractals, and what would happen if you fell into a black hole (a perennial favorite among middle schoolers).

All of which gave the girls “a different perspective on math—that math is something that people want to do for fun,” noted Ann Dubie, a math teacher at The Bement School. For math team member Anfisa Bogdanenko ’20, the speakers were the highlight of the event. “Seeing a room full of ambitious young women marveling at how higher dimensions work brought me a remarkable sense of unity and hope,” she said.

However, Seamon’s favorite moments occurred between rounds, when the buzz in the room grew loud and excited. He said that what often discourages students from liking math is a feeling of anxiety that emerges when tasked with a difficult problem. On the day of the competition, however, the environment felt free from that kind of tension. The volume of chatter in the room meant the girls were connecting, creating a community with math at its core. “I think it was a good sign we were doing the right thing,” he said. “I look forward to it being louder next year.”