Illinois Math Women Seek to Keep Kids, Especially Girls, in the STEM Pipeline

Left to right: Math Ph.D. students Melinda Lanius and Claire Merriman.

June 3, 2016

University of Illinois Mathematics PhD students Michelle Delcourt, Melinda Lanius, and Claire Merriman are passionate about sharing research level mathematics with the local community and encouraging area kids to study mathematics. All three are actively involved in organizing mathematics outreach events through the Illinois Geometry Lab (IGL) and the Illinois chapter of the Association of Women in Mathematics (AWM). Events include Sonia Math Day, Summer Illinois Math (SIM) Camp, and Girls Engaged in Math and Science (GEMS).

A national organization, AWM’s mission is to support women; it’s open to anyone who believes women should be involved in math. While Illinois’ chapter, which is primarily comprised of graduate student women, has around 20 members who regularly come to events, both male and female math students participate in many of the outreaches and coed social events they hold.

Delcourt, Lanius, and Merriman have all been graduate student leaders of the Illinois Geometry Lab. Additionally Delcourt and Lanius are currently members of AWM's executive board and its three committees: Outreach, Academic, and Social. And each is integrally involved in many of math’s outreach activities.

Merriman explains the philosophy behind their outreach events: “The math that you see in schools is very useful, but this more creative and discovery-driven process that’s more driven by questions than by answers is closer to how mathematicians actually work. We’re hoping that if we show kids this early, then they will actually be excited about studying math.”  So this is the philosophy behind the activities for AWM’s major outreach events, such as Sonia Math Day.

Sonia Math Day

In its fourth year, Sonia Math Day is an outreach for 8th–12th grade girls held in both the fall and the spring. At the spring 2016 event on Saturday, April 23rd, nine girls spent the day with Illinois math students, playing math games and discovering that math is fun...and that it’s not just for guys.

Two Sonia Math Day participants (center), along with a couple of the math folks who helped with the event, enjoying one of the math games related to the torus.

To help the participants feel comfortable working with the leaders and each other, the day's events began with an icebreaker. Then the workshop leaders introduced the girls to important women in math, such as Sonia Kovalevsky, and explained why there’s a day named after her. The girls also learned about Maryam Mirzakhani, a winner of the 2014 Fields Medal. Mirzakhani was the first woman ever to win the prestigious award—the highest award a mathematician can receive.

“We want these young girls to know, ‘You can be a mathematician, and there are a lot of very successful women who are mathematicians!’” exclaims Lanius.

Many of the day’s activities involved math games centered around the torus (which is like a hollow doughnut). While classified as “hands-on,” the games actually involved the entire body, as girls played Simon Says, Tic Tac Toe, and Twister, all adapted to the torus. 

“By grounding the math in games that a lot of people are familiar with,” explains Lanius, who does outreach for both IGL and AWM, “they’re really going to get familiar with this doughnut concept. They’re playing a game; it’s a lot of fun. It’s great for everyone involved.”

Image of a pair of pants (courtesy of: Melinda Lanius, who created the image).

Some of the math principles the girls learned dealt with low dimensional topology. Lanius explains that the students learned they could build these objects using what we call ‘pairs of pants,’ or cobordisms.

So if you imagine taking this kind of hollow doughnut and slicing it a certain way, you get what looks like a pair of pants. So imagine a pair of pants. There are two holes where your feet go through, and a hole for your waist. It’s a fun fact that all of these surfaces that I’ve described have what we call these pants decompositions. You can use the pants to assemble them.”

Lanius, the AWM Outreach Committee Chair for 2016–2017, reports that the kids have difficulty grasping the idea that they are actually learning math while playing fun games.

“It’s always amazing each year when that student has that 'aha!' moment—when they’re like, ‘Wow, this counts as mathematics?’” she explains. “They think memorizing the quadratic formula and executing it is math, but that really isn’t the type of mathematics that we do as researchers. Our practice as mathematicians is extremely creative, and we think about things, like the hollow donut—that counts as mathematics.”

Melinda Lanius, 4th year Math Ph.D. student, during Sonia Math Day activities.

She goes on to explain that part of their motivation is to show the kids that they shouldn’t put math in a box:

“There’s a place in mathematics for every kind of person,” acknowledges Lanius. “There’s an area of mathematics for artists who like to visualize putting things together, and there’s things in mathematics for people who really like paying attention to close details and working things out.”

“Or want to work on real-world problems,” adds Merriman.

“We’re just trying to open up that scope for them,” Lanius continues. “They really think that math is just memorizing things. We’re trying to show them that there’s this vast world and there’s a place there for you.”

“Claire and I were at a conference in Texas. We were just chatting over coffee and were like, ‘You know what would be an awesome thing? We really enjoyed camps when we were kids!’  And Claire recognized that we have a lot of outreach through AWM for women in high school, but we had nothing for both genders at the high school levels. And we don’t have anything in the summers. So we thought it would be so much fun to do this. Two weeks later, she went and started asking for money, and she made it happen.”

“I had a vision,” Lanius continued, “and Claire executed it!”

Summer Illinois Math (SIM) Camp

In its second year, the Summer Illinois Math (SIM) Camp is a free day camp run by female math students. Lanius shares an anecdote about how the camp came to be:

They applied for a public engagement grant to fund the camp. Claire recalls going to Michelle Delcourt who at that time was the president of AWM and the other outreach manager in the Illinois Geometry Lab (IGL). “I told her, ‘We don’t have anything in the summer!’ and she was like, ‘Here’s a grant to apply for.’” The Math Department also helped fund the camp. The 2016 SIM Camp is funded by the above two, as well as a number of other agencies, including the National Science Foundation.

Participant in Sonia Math Day plays a math game related to a torus.

“We’re truly lucky at Illinois to have all of these opportunities and all of this support,” says Michelle Delcourt. “Our department in particular has been very generous, as well as the Office of Public Engagement as far as funding and supporting these programs and these initiatives, and we hope to continue this into the future.”

While 23 kids 9th–12th grade attended the first SIM camp in 2015, the summer 2016 camp is expanding, with more students and a larger age range. There will be two camps with about 20–25 students attending each:

  • SIM Camp Delta from July 18–22 will be for middle schoolers (8th and 9th grade).
  • SIM Camp Epsilon from July 25–29 will be for high school students (9th–12th grade).

Evidently an inside joke only mathematicians can appreciate, the names of the camps, Epsilon and Delta, are common Greek letters used in mathematical proofs.

“So that’s why it’s cute,” admits Merriman, who acknowledges that those of us who are not mathematicians don’t get it, and relates that among the blank stares she gets from folks upon hearing the camp names, “There’ll be the random mathematician who goes, ‘Oh, that’s so cute!’ says Lanius, then adds, “I was talking with people from the department over the weekend, and they all appreciated it a lot!”

Because it’s free, the SIM camps specifically target kids who normally might not have an opportunity to go to one because they’re so expensive:

“So it’s important that it’s free and accessible for the communities that couldn’t normally afford this,” explains Merriman, “for students who don’t normally have these opportunities to be able to apply. The kids who have opportunities are welcome as well. Certainly, we won’t let the financial aspect be a problem.”

In fact, the ladies are particularly targeting Champaign County schools and are working with the principals to make sure the kids know about it, and that, “We really want them to apply,” says Lanius.

Two math grad students participate in an activity during Sonia Math Day.


Another AWM outreach for girls is GEMS (Girls Engaged in Math and Science), a math workshop for 6th–9th grade girls. Fall 2015’s GEMS: Adventures in Geometry was held for three Saturdays in October at the Orpheum Children’s Science Museum and addressed Conic Sections, Ruled Surfaces, and Surfaces of Revolution.

The AWM doesn’t just do outreach. In addition to the Outreach Committee, AWM also has two others: Academic, and Social.

As the chair of the Social Committee in 2015–2016, Lanius' goal was "Making sure we're bonding and staying connected," she explains. Some social activities, usually coed, included Casual Coffee (“Every couple of weeks, we had this casual coffee, where we could all support one another, hear what’s going on," explains Lanius), and Study Breaks (snacks and an activity). To get into the Christmas spirit, they took a trip to a Reindeer Ranch in December. In early April 2016, they held a spring luncheon. ("That's an important event where the younger students get to meet the older students, and the faculty come in and they share and support us, so there's kind of that mentoring aspect.") As Social Chair, Lanius also instituted a Buddy System in Fall 2015, where incoming first year grad students signed up to have a mentor (this was for everybody; it wasn't based on gender or only women who are AWM members).

Two students enjoying a Sonia Math Day activity.

AWM has also organized a Graduate Student Colloquium series, which is the responsibility of the Academic Chair, which is three or four times a semester. "That has become quite popular," says Lanius. "Faculty are coming to it."

While Delcourt, Lanius, and Merriman are extremely busy Ph.D. students, they make time in their schedules for outreach, hoping to do something about the bad rap math gets. Besides showing youngsters of both genders that math is fun and that they can do it, they especially hope to be role models for girls, to let them know that they can be good at it too.

For example, Michelle Delcourt, currently a manager for IGL, who has held positions in AWM ranging from president to outreach director, explains that she wants to make sure today’s youngsters discover that math is fun.

“These are truly the programs that I would have liked to have done as a young girl,” she admits. “There are so many students that when I say that I like math or do math, the first thing that they say is either “You must be really smart!” or “I hate math!” Children do not hate math; they love patterns and games and symmetries. But the school systems think math is memorizing formulas and derivatives and that sort of thing, which it’s not. It’s a creative process, and I think if you can show younger students that math is fun from a young age, they won’t develop these preconceived notions.”

Lanius and Merriman’s goal is simple: “Keep kids in the pipeline!” exclaims Lanius. “Keep kids in the pipeline!” echoes Merriman.

Michelle Delcourt, 5th year Math Ph.D. student

“A lot of people drop out of the pipeline,” explains Lanius, “and don’t even think that this is an option for them. Particularly, it happens before they get to see this. We’re trying to make sure the options are open and that they can make meaningful decisions.”

So did the three see some mathematicians among the Sonia Day participants? “Yes, I hope so,” says Delcourt. “A number of the girls were actually saying that they love math and biology and that they want to do biomathematics which is also a big field. Hopefully some of them will apply to do the SIM camp this summer as well, where we’re doing a session on math biology.

When asked what impact she hoped Sonia Day had had, Delcourt’s response would no doubt be echoed by both Lanius and Merriman and applicable to all of AWM’s outreach events:

“I hope it’s encouraging young girls to pursue careers in math or science, or further education at the very least. Ideally, we would have the next famous mathematician in that group. The next Sonia.”

Story and photographs by Elizabeth Innes, Communications Specialist, I-STEM Education Initiative.
More: 6-8 Outreach, 8-12 Outreach, Association of Women in Mathematics, GEMS, Graduate STEM Outreach, IGL, Mathematics, Summer Camp, Women in STEM, 2016

For additional I-STEM web articles about math outreach, see:

Image of a torus (courtesy of:

Two students participate in an activity during Sonia Math Day.

Girls participating in Sonia Math Day play Simon Says on a torus.

The nine girls who participated in Sonia Math Day (center) and the math grad students/staff who helped at the event.