Broadening Participation in the MAA Competitions Programs

By Rachel Levy, Deputy Executive Director of the Mathematical Association of America

Teachers at the NCSSM 2019 Teaching Contemporary Mathematics Conference discuss broadening participation in the MAA AMC and field test materials from MAA Mathematician-at-large James Tanton

Teachers at the NCSSM 2019 Teaching Contemporary Mathematics Conference discuss broadening participation in the MAA AMC and field test materials from MAA Mathematician-at-large James Tanton

When I began my work as MAA Deputy Executive Director in Denver at MAA MathFest 2018, I knew that part of my job would include the MAA American Mathematics Competitions (AMC): the AMC 8, AMC 10, AMC 12, AIME, USAJMO, USAMO and Putnam. I have to admit that I wondered if I was the right person for the job because I come from the world of mathematical modeling challenges, which seemed like a very different venture. I wondered how might experience with math modeling challenges inform our competitions program?

I was delighted to see that at MAA MathFest 2018, Jo Boaler and Sol Garfunkel would be presenting their research, which is also featured in the Feb/March 2019 issue of MAA FOCUS. They looked at why modeling challenges attract about half female-identified particip=ants, when some mathy sports do not. We met for breakfast to talk about their research and how it might inform our work at the MAA. We have continued the conversation since.

In her 2018 MathFest invited lecture, Eugenia Cheng contrasted the experience of competitions with other ways of engaging in math as a creative endeavor that are more analogous to doing crafts at a table with friends. Important takeaways from conversations with Jo and Sol have been that the emphasis on individual participation, short time limits, and experiences with little or no writing component might all be aspects of the MAA AMC program that could benefit from further investigation.  

Some women enjoy competition. As a child, that usually showed up in my kickball game more than my math habits, but that could be because there was no math team in sight. I had no kid-focused and welcoming math community. Much later, when I did become aware of sports like Olympics of the Mind, I felt out of place watching experienced students prepare with their team for those events. I probably would have enjoyed it and there were general announcements welcoming new members, but I did not feel personally invited, and did not ask to join.

When Dr. Boaler and I were talking, she expressed how interesting she found some of the mathematics in the competition problems, and how students would benefit from more exposure to these kinds of challenges. Several faculty have let me know that they wish they had known about the competitions, and would have appreciated an invitation as a young person. Personal invitations are powerful. We want to think about how to extend more of them, and support the young people and their teachers who say YES.

This work has started already under the direction of the MAA AMC Executive team, which includes Jenn Barton, MAA AMC Director of Competitions Operations; Bela Bajnok, MAA AMC Director; Paul Zeitz, Chair of the Competitions Committee and myself. Here are five of the ways we are working on broadening participation and building community:

  1. This Fall we created new editorial boards for our competitions programs, which used to be composed by committees. These boards are composed of over one hundred people from a variety of careers, and they include historic leadership participation by women (they comprise half of the co-editors in chiefs).  The new editors met at JMM 2019 and they are already engaged in conversations about what features make the competitions fun, meaningful, beautiful, and challenging.

  2. We want to connect with more teachers and students, and have several approaches. James Tanton’s work as MAA Mathematician at Large provides direct support and encouragement. We are also partnering with other organizations to conduct research on recruitment and retention of teachers and students as well as competition development.  We also are working on support materials for teachers, to help them engage students in tackling problems that are not directly found in their curricula.

  3. The MAA SIGMAA-MCST (Math Circles) is planning to share at MAA MathFest 2019 some group-oriented tasks developed for the Julia Robinson Festival. These tasks have embedded qualities of choice, do not emphasize speed, and are conducive to teamwork. The MAA AMC is exploring additional kinds of MAA AMC events for the future that could build in some of these qualities to broaden participation in competitions.

  4. If we want to broaden participation, we need input from the students and teachers that we want to reach. Jo connected me with our new Math Values blogger Meera Desai. As a high school student Meera has shared her love of math competitions through her blog and has organized events to get more girls involved in the MAA AMC. Look forward to Meera’s posts soon!

  5. I led two workshops focused on broadening participation in the MAA AMC at the Teaching Contemporary Mathematics Conference at the NC School of Science and Mathematics this Spring. These teachers had great ideas about broadening participation and also shared their local challenges and successes in engaging students in mathematics.  

Please share your ideas with us. If you are at a college or university, let us know if you are interested in working with a teacher in your area to form a team. If you are a teacher, let us know what we can do to help you get your students involved. We are excited about the future of the MAA AMC - join us in making the vision a reality.