Camping by the Numbers

"Don't you dare give up" - Jane Everhart, chief financial officer of Otterbox, a corporate sponsor of the math camp, delivered a presentation that inspired the girls to be resilient and follow their dreams. Related: Photo gallery at end of story

Math doesn't usually induce tears, at least not tears of joy. But it just might at the Las Chicas de Matemáticas summer math camp for girls at the University of Northern Colorado.

"This is really about making them leaders," said Las Chicas founder and UNC math professor Hortensia Soto-Johnson. "I want them to recognize and take advantage of opportunities presented to them. My passion is math, so I teach this through math."

It could be a music camp, a history camp, or a sports camp, but a math camp for girls is especially powerful, Soto-Johnson said.

Research shows a dearth of female role models in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) careers because women are not choosing careers in math-related fields, according to a study at the University of Washington. Research from Stanford University's School of Education reveals bias against girls in K-12 math classes, where boys are assumed to be "better" at math and, therefore, treated differently from female students, resulting low self-confidence for girls in a subject at which they may excel.

But Soto-Johnson forges a bridge over this chasm of typical math education as she pours her energy, resources and personal experience into a week that can truly influence lives.

As it did for camper Silvia Gonzales, a 15-year-old from Denver's Bruce Randolph High School. Along with two co-campers, Gonzales explained to the group what would happen to a vector as they changed the variable coordinates. And then she tried to hold back her tears when she realized her answer was wrong. But clear and supportive direction from Soto-Johnson and Gonzales's peers helped her understand the concept backward and forward, which is how she recited it, through tears and then a relieved smile.

"Perfect time for some chocolate," instructor Jess Ellis, a graduate student from San Diego State University, said as she threw Dove chocolates to the girls in the middle of their afternoon session studying complex valued functions. Ellis volunteered at the camp to gain experience working with high school students.

The third-floor computer lab in Ross Hall emanated female energy, camaraderie and support. These girls, who came to camp as strangers, bonded over eight hours of math by day and over pizza, rock climbing, swimming, movies, theater and rooming together by night.

In its fourth year, the camp is the often the first experience on a university campus for many of the girls, and Soto-Johnson hopes it helps them decide to attend college. According to a 2011 Colorado Commission on Higher Education report, UNC had more students enrolled in the Mathematics Endorsement/Licensure program (149) than any other Colorado institution.

Camper Ashley Dafoe, 17, a senior at Horizon High School in Thornton, Colo., plans to go to college and major in forensic science and anthropology.

"The math is hard, but it's fun," said Poudre High School senior Carmen Muñoz-Andrade. She knew one student when she arrived on Sunday, but by the end of the week she knew 29 girls her age who were as motivated by math as she was. "It's cool, because I get to make a lot of new friends."

Soto-Johnson selected 30 girls out of 70 applicants who submitted a letter stating why they wanted to attend and a recommendation from a math teacher. Girls are encouraged to apply to attend the camp again if they've attended in the past; this was Katy Beckel's third year.

"I think back to who I was as a freshman and realize that math camp is one of the events that has truly defined who I am as an individual. I am better academically because of math camp. I have leadership skills because of math camp . . . . I am a stronger young woman because of math camp," Beckel wrote in her application letter, articulating the results Soto-Johnson hopes for and encourages with guest speakers - women successful in math careers - who come for lunch each day.

Heidi Olinger, CEO of Pretty Brainy, a girls and womens online clothing retailer with an academic theme, kicked off the camp, with a design workshop to create their camp T-shirt with a math theme. Other guests included an agent from State Farm Insurance, an architect, a finance director at phone case company Otterbox, an engineer from Noble Energy, an author, and a veterinary epidemiologist. Discussions ranged from families to education to careers and how to balance it all. The message, loud and clear, was: "Follow your dreams."

The sponsors enabled Soto-Johnson to offer the camp for free - room and board, instruction, recreation - everything is covered by private support.

"It is very important that the camp be free to these girls to ensure we have the diversity we do," Soto-Johnson said.

Half of this year's group was Hispanic; the remainder was a mix of other ethnicities. They came from all over Colorado, including the Denver metro area, the Western Slope, Colorado Springs and Pueblo, and northern Colorado. The girls ranged in age from 13-17, the majority entering eleventh or twelfth grades this fall.

Soto-Johnson, a native of Mexico and first-generation college student, started the program because she benefitted from a teacher's belief in her.

"My fifth grade teacher in a small town in Nebraska kept me in from recess to work on math until I could move up from the low group to the high group," Soto-Johnson said. "But I didn't want to move up - it was too scary!"

Today, she can trace her success as a mathematician and educator back to that teacher. Soto-Johnson started Las Chicas as an instructor at Colorado State University-Pueblo because very few Hispanic girls enrolled in the math programs. She also was a math camp counselor for middle school students when she was in college.

"I know it can be scary, but you learn that when somebody puts their trust in you, just do it."

Soto-Johnson put her trust in these girls. And they did it. By Friday, the classroom was abuzz with collaboration and problem solving using real and imaginary numbers, the geometry of knots, the function f(z)=z2.

And there were no more tears, just smiles and friendships and lots of math.

- Amy Dressel-Martin

The 2012 Las Chicas de Matemáticas was made available to participants at no cost by the generosity of State Farm Insurance Co., Noble Energy Inc., The Women's Foundation of Colorado, OtterBox/OtterCares Foundation, UNC NOYCE Scholars from the MAST Center, UNC Provost's Office, Cooper & Holly
and Klick & Associates Inc.