This Week at Global Math – 2/23/2021


Curated By Chase Orton @mathgeek76

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Online Professional Development Sessions

Please join us Tuesday, March 2nd for:

“Advanced Algebra with Financial Applications” An Algebra 2 Alternative for Struggling Students

Presented by Dr Robert Gerver

Selected topics from Algebra 2, probability, statistics, trig, geometry and precalculus, all taught with an algebra 1 prerequisite, are used to cover banking, credit, mortgages, income taxes, auto insurance, investing, budgets, and much more. The perfect alternative to algebra 2 for a struggling student who would be set up for failure in algebra 2.

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No Webinar Tonight.
Instead, consider checking out our archives of previous GMD Webinars at the links at the bottom of this newsletter. 


Math Olympiads & Gender Silence

Now in my fifth year of teaching math at a girls day school, my local thinking is often oriented around identity factors other than gender (which is, very roughly speaking, held constant at my institution) as I focus instead on race, class, religion, etc. When I instead think globally (in the mathematical sense of the word) I become enraged with the accepted state of affairs as pertains to women and girls in US mathematics. (For just one example from the previous week – with follow-ups to come – see the blog post here. For an earlier GMD contribution from me on Gender Matters & More, see here.)

All of that is to say: Quanta Magazine has yet another terrible miss (and mess!) in its coverage of math olympiads. I tweeted out some of my thoughts:

Is this state of affairs acceptable from organizing bodies in mathematics? (Hint: No.)

The MAA is aware of these problems. Incidentally, there was an article in their own MAA Focus February/March 2019 issue by Boaler, Cordero, and Dieckmann entitled Pursuing Gender

Equity in Mathematics Competitions: A Case of Mathematical Freedom, which relates to a COMAP webinar tomorrow (Wednesday, February 24, 2021; sign up!):

Moving our gender focus momentarily from math olympiads to the actual olympics, a campaign against the overtly sexist Tokyo 2020 president was successful in pushing him out of his leadership role. What activist lessons can the mathematics communities learn from this?

Meanwhile, we haven’t heard from the MAA, nor from anyone at Quanta, nor from the current coach on whom the earlier article is focused. Despite my tweets and tags, they have all been silent (as of the time of my writing). But, I did notice a few others who were voicing their displeasure – women mathematicians who have not been silent – and three of them wrote the piece below.

– Benjamin Dickman [@benjamindickman]


An AMC for the Mathematics Community

 So you’d never drop a problem?
If it’s a math problem, it’s hard to get something that would make me drop it, unless somehow something was proved that said that it is not possible. To me, “drop” is a really strong term. Because what if in 10 years a new technique developed? It’s a new weapon, you should try it.
– Coach for the International Math Olympiad US team, in Quanta Magazine
Making mathematics more inclusive? It’s a difficult problem but not an impossible one. As a community, we have not exhausted our arsenal of weapons to fight for diversity, equity, and inclusion; even if it takes decades of work, we cannot drop this problem! Inspired by the MAA’s American Mathematics Competition, we invite the mathematical community to participate in the following exercise. Share your answers (full or partial) on Twitter with #GMDWrites.
About the Authors: We three authors met on Twitter in a thread about the Quanta interview. We decided to get together (on Zoom! on a weekend!) to talk about some of the exercises below, and we’ll continue to meet to formalize some of these thoughts into a letter to the MAA and to Quanta. We hope others will join us to continue this discussion, as each of the three of us carries the privilege of being a tenured white woman mathematician, and thus our perspective is limited.

Topics for this year’s exercises were retrieved from the Mathematical Association of America.

1. Community. Should we believe that “the best pre-college math students in the world” are represented in the International Math Olympiad (IMO)?

Locations of 348 US high schools listed on the Achievement, Honor, and Merit Rolls of the AMC 2020 10/12 A and B events extracted from the AMC Historical Statistics tool, Google Maps, US Postal Service zip codes, and the Department of Education Public School Locations.
  • What efforts are being made to create math competition teams for high school learners, especially those in underserved communities? About 6,000 secondary schools in the US have teams, but there are approximately 35,000 high schools in the US.
  • Does there exist professional development with the explicit mission to build a network of coaches in a broader range of high schools?
  • How can math competitions (including the AMC) promote more collaborative problem solving? How would this affect the community of participant.
2. Inclusion. Who gets to enter the competition funnel? What are the barriers to entry?
  • The MAA allows users to create a report to study the breakdown of AMC participation in terms of the gender binary. What could we learn if we could create reports along other axes of diversity (race, ethnicity, ability/disability, gender identity, socioeconomic status, geographical location…)?
  • Since we do have limited data about gender… where are the girls? Why are they competing in the European Girls’ Math Olympiad?
  • How could math competitions (including but not limited to the AMC) broaden access to mathematics?
3. Communication. Should we be satisfied with the answer given by the US math olympiad coach when asked about diversity and gender representation? What could a truly transformative approach to coaching look like?

Excerpt from the Quanta interview
  • Who gets to represent mathematics in venues like Quanta? What does that mean for how mathematics is represented? Whose achievements are highlighted?
  • How could the structure of, and participation in, the decades-old AMC to IMO competition pipeline reflect our changing society?
  • Why does the MAA promote this competition instead of others? What does the participation and format of the AMC competition (multiple choice test where students work independently) communicate to K12 students and teachers about mathematics?
  • How could the MAA celebrate and advance creative mathematical achievements of high schoolers beyond the six students celebrated at the end of the IMO?
4. Teaching and Learning. What can we infer from a track record of 36 men, 0 women in the US Math Olympiad team led by this coach?

Data retrieved from
  • How could the AMC to IMO competition pipeline align better with MAA’s vision to use mathematics to “promote human flourishing”?
  • Why does it cost so much to prepare? How could the MAA provide high quality, free resources for the broader community? What role could the US team’s coach have in providing these resources?
  • What are the research-based instructional methods and resources that are being used in IMO coaching?
Extra Credit. Microsoft is training a computer to solve International Math Olympiad problems. What can we infer about Microsoft’s view of “the Grand Challenge” facing the IMO?
In the Quanta article, the US team’s coach describes his approach to mathematical problem solving:
You can’t just sit there and say: “I don’t know if this idea will work. I don’t know if that idea will work. I’m not going to try any idea.” No, you’ve got to dive in. You have to already have the attitude that “I don’t know where this idea is taking me, but I’m going to push it all the way through.”
The structural problems that prevent a broader participation of students from underrepresented backgrounds in the AMC to IMO competition pipeline are real, and they parallel problems in the mathematics profession. Here, we encourage the IMO coach, the MAA, and the mathematics community to persevere in solving these problems: it’s time to dive in and push some ideas all the way through.

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