School of Graduate Studies

School of Graduate Studies
School of Graduate Studies

Asia Matthews

Ph.D candidate, Maths & Stats

Asia Matthews

Asia Matthews demonstrates the Fibonnaci sequence using bee male/female generations 

MathQuest - how our grad students are helping others

by Sharday Mosurinjohn, September 2014

Math Quest, a four-day summer math camp for girls started four years ago when Maja-Lisa Thomson, then an adjunct in the Math Department, coordinated the first iteration, called Explore Mathemagics. At the time, the entire effort was entirely volunteer-based, and it was only a day camp—officially, that is. Maja-Lisa, in fact, personally hosted some girls who had to travel for the event. That same DIY attitude, which current instructor Asia Matthews characterizes as typical of math folk in general, remains with the program today. The program is supported and funded by generous donors, and sponsorship from the Canadian Mathematical Society (CMS) and the Queen's University Department of Mathematics and Statistics. The Queen's University Alumni Association (QUAA) will also sponsor a girl (with financial need) to attend this camp.

This year, the camp is directed by Kingston math teacher Siobhain Broekhoven, with the help of graduate students Matthews, Carly Rozins (whom Broekhoven describes as her “right hand”), Michael Cabral, Emilie Wheeler, Tyson Mitchell, Johanna Hansen and alumnus Josh Brinkman. They were joined by two women who have just finished their undergrads and are starting their graduate work, Yuliya Nesterova (who will be studying at Queen's) and Suzanne Findleton (who has accepted a scholarship to Waterloo).  

Why a girls-only math camp? Instructor Carly Rozins says she would have been skeptical at an earlier time about the politics of gender-separated education, but she has become convinced that girls benefit from learning styles tailored to them—whether the needs those techniques are meeting have to do with culture, biology, or other reasons.

Rozins became involved with Math Quest three years ago when she volunteered as a leader for just a few sessions. She also tried her hand at designing and teaching a math course for the Enrichment Studies Unit, which offers university-level courses to high school students over the summer. That class was “rewarding and exhausting” and was dominated by boys. At Math Quest, Rozins has noticed that girls respond to hands-on, applied activities where they can see and feel the principles behind different tasks.

Matthews agrees, adding that Maja-Lisa’s original impetus was to create a pressure-free environment where girls could freely explore problem-solving. Matthews herself started in pure mathematics but later turned to studying how mathematicians design the problems intended to elicit mathematical thinking. She made this shift when she began teaching at an institution which required all instructors to enroll in a pedagogy course. Fascinated, she took the opportunity to get involved with Math Quest in the first year it came up. “The reason why I’ve done this for four years is because I want—we all want—to make available what we as mathematicians know about math. It’s very different from what’s done in elementary and high school.”

Why this difference? And what kinds of math does Math Quest teach? “History and inertia,” quips Matthews, in answer to the first question. “The math we learn in public school is mostly just arithmetic and those curricula were designed with the jobs of a hundred years ago in mind.” Math Quest, on the other hand, is designed around projects drawn from domains such as robotics, engineering, number theory, and biology.

Biology and math

How nature uses the Fibonnaci sequence

This year, there were two major activities: paper airplane design and programming a robot. “We thought long and hard about what to include, based on what we instructors are passionate about ourselves. The robotics activity was actually borrowed from a first year engineering course, but just delivered appropriately for the ages we have here,” says Rozins, brimming with pride.

working with robots

Working with Robots!

When each of the campers applies, she is asked to write a little bit about her reasons for wanting to attend Math Quest. Rozins recalls how one girl wrote only “my mother is making me go to math camp,” with a note from the mother appended, about how she hoped her daughter would make friends and see other girls achieving highly in math. Across CMS math camps, female enrollment is only about 20%, Matthews estimates. She and Rozins, along with their fellow staff, agree that it’s a powerful thing for girls to model these roles for each other.

>With the original enrollment of the camp having doubled in only four years, the women who have made it possible are clearly offering something valuable for those who are already motivated as well as those whose interest is yet to be sparked.