Follow Me into Math!

Through near-peer interactions, I sought to motivate interest and academic choices in mathematics for local high school students. Outreach activities included local visits to the classroom, content creation on social media, and facilitation of a summer internship program hosted at UTRGV.

I was a member of the Follow Me into Math! research project since its inception in Fall 2021 through the duration of my undergraduate experience at UTRGV. Overall, the experience provided me the opportunity to shape a research project from the ground up. Since 2021, we wrote and performed over a dozen original "math show" presentations to a local high school, Donna High School (DHS) in the RGV community. Additionally, we curated photos and videos on student-led social media accounts to further engage students outside of the classroom.

We shared highlights from this project at the RGV STEM Education Conference. You can also click through the tabs below to read highlights from my personal experience working on this project.

Sharing my FMiM! experience

I discussed my experiences working on this project during a panel at the 4th Annual RGV STEM Education Consortium. Here are some of the topics we discussed.

How my involvement in community engagement activities has impacted my academic decisions, trajectory, and career plans:

I think it’s rare to find a project where you can just, be yourself, and that’s what the team is looking for – and that’s the gift that I’ve found working on this research. I am an imperfect mathematician, who likes math and has other interests too, including social media! By embracing that identity, I am normalizing it, not only for myself, but for others like me in my community.

I believe strongly that my involvement on this project has a positive impact on my own identity as a mathematician. Just because I struggle on my homework doesn’t make me any less – because I can look at the homework that I did 3 months ago, or 3 years ago, and say, you know what? I really get it now.

Reflecting on my own academic journey, I found that it took me awhile to embrace math as a discipline that I wanted to study. As I continue my studies, I find myself more and more fascinated by the intersection of mathematics and education. Where is the saturation point, where we convince someone mathematics really is cool, beautiful, fascinating, worth devoting themselves to? Where do we cross the line from, I’m good at this, to I like this and I’m good at this? And how do we expose students to the material that can help them cross over to both enjoying mathematics and feeling good at it too, as soon as possible? When I think about what I want to research long term, a project like this would keep me content and busy for a long, long while.

Benefits of community engagement activities:

We know that mentoring works. But I believe that the closer a mentor is to have been at the level the mentee once was at, the more likely the mentee is to confide in that mentor. A graduate student assisting with a course is more approachable to an undergraduate, when compared to the professor instructing it. Similarly, the outreach done by college students is more likely to land with high school students, than outreach done by “more senior” educators. It’s easy to see myself as a graduate student. It’s harder to see myself as a professor – I mean, we all have aspirations, right? But one is more approachable than the other. I think the same applies here.

My recommendation for those who want to start community engagement activities:

Just start. You’re never going to feel 100% ready to make a positive impact. But positions like this shape you into the person that you need to be. Along the way, your team will give you the room you need to grow and learn from mistakes. Sometimes, it takes saying something the wrong way to realize how you could say it better next time. And today, it’s so much fun - YouTube actually recommends mathematics videos to me. I have a website now and so much more of a professional web presence than ever before.

And most of all, it’s OK to be yourself. Be funny if that’s natural. Talk about what interests you. I really like to dance. Students will respect you. My mentor shares his passion for music regularly. I know the name of another mentor’s cat. I know how much another mentor can lift. Then - be willing to listen to your community, who will undoubtedly show you themselves as well, and accept their needs too.

As part of a team implementing and studying innovative strategies in mathematics; what is the most important thing you have observed and/or learned from your involvement?:

It’s really tough to pick just 1 thing! When you work with people, they are constantly being shaped by their experiences. The student’s typical experience, before we meet them in the classroom, might be something like this: “everything in the history of mathematics has already been discovered. My teacher is telling me all that there is to know about mathematics. The formulas are hard, and already exist, and my calculator can do what I need to do. Why am I here, and why do I need to know this?” So, we are in a unique position to plant a seed of curiosity. If we can get the student to engage in just one part of our "math shows", to start thinking about how cool a concept is, and wonder about the idea behind it, we’ve done it! We have many places to check for engagement – whether on social media or during a "math show", every interaction counts. Making the student feel heard, acknowledged, and appreciating their budding mathematical mind, is like MiracleGro, to help that student flower into their identity as a potential mathematician, or maybe a physicist or an engineer or another sort of STEM professional.

And if I could add - overall, our study will continue to evolve just as social media usage does, so having the flexibility to try new things is such a gift. I think anyone could benefit from a perspective of, it’s OK to change things up – especially with the world the way it is today. If something is not working, it’s worth setting aside the time to figure out what is going to work, instead. Our future depends on it.

Visiting local classrooms

One student was very talkative with us during an outreach presentation. He shared a lot of himself with us - his dreams of making a meaningful impact on the world with inventions, as well as his anxieties being in the classroom and sharing this with his peers.

In this moment, I could relate deeply to this. In high school, I was so embarrassed to like mathematics and computer science that I hid it from many of my friends. I would have really struggled to find the courage to talk like this around my peers, like this student had done.

Even though this student found this courage, he was visibly nervous after talking so much and expressed his fears of failure. As a team, we had the opportunity here to pause and normalize this moment; to breathe together as fellow students who experience anxiety sometimes. I had recently presented in my cryptology class how Leonard Adlemen cracked Adi Shamir's and Ron Rivest's RSA algorithm 42 times before it became "uncrackable". It was rewarding to share directly from that pool of knowledge with this student. I had a unique opportunity to express that "failure" is not only common, it can also lead to success.

Throughout each visit, I had additional opportunities to connect my university experiences with the topics presented:

  • I introduced the volume of a ball in $n$ dimensions discussed in my real analysis course during a conversation about multiple dimensions.

  • After a presentation about imaginary numbers, I showcased their application - and the intersection of art and mathematics - via a demonstration of Newton basins.

  • With the rich history of mathematics, each topic affords us the ability to share "behind-the-scenes" about famous mathematicians such as Euclid, Pythagoreas, Euler, Galois, etc.

Overall, the semi-structure of the math shows is a great way to bond with students over our human nature. Students can share their passions with us, and we can respond to those passions with our own experiences. Ultimately, we can show mathematics is both useful and interesting.

Summer FMiM! internship

Though I was not present in the RGV during the summer internship portion of the Follow Me into Math! project, I had the opportunity to join students virtually to discuss my undergraduate research experience ongoing at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. I shared a video about my research project, answered student questions, and introduced them to other team members in my lab. You can watch the video on YouTube..

I know first-hand that it can be hard to figure out what you want to do while you are in high school. I had no idea about the possibilities of a research career in mathematics. This lack of knowledge led me down a path of changing my major multiple times and taking a break from school to pursue a career in industry. It was rewarding to share these experiences so openly with students and to emphasize the importance of starting a mathematics career earlier.