SIAM News Blog

SIAM Partakes in the 2021 Virtual National Math Festival

By Wesley Hamilton

Every two years, the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute—in cooperation with the Institute for Advanced Study and the National Museum of Mathematics—organizes the National Math Festival (NMF) to bring together mathematicians, math educators, and the broader community. The NMF typically takes place in Washington, D.C., but it occurred virtually this year due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The festival ran from Friday, April 16 through Sunday, April 18 and was hosted on the Hopin event platform (see Figure 1).

This year’s event included five film screenings and associated panels, seven special math talks (with subjects ranging from black holes and spacetime to “Changing the ‘Face’ of Mathematics”), an “Imagine Math Class” video competition for youths aged 13-18, and a plethora of interactive sessions and booths. The festival began on Friday night with several screenings and a Mathical book reading, but most festival activities took place over the weekend. All of the interactive sessions and booths were open to attendees on Saturday and Sunday.

Steven Strogatz delivered a main stage talk titled “Infinite Powers: The Story of Calculus.” During his presentation, which was meant for a general audience, Strogatz discussed the history of calculus and how it has shaped modern science. Austin Ferguson, a mathematics graduate student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, attended and enjoyed the talk. “It was great listening to Dr. Strogatz talk about the basics of calculus,” he said. “Hearing a professor who I respect so much, whose textbook helped steer me in the direction I’ve gone, explain something so clearly and with so much passion was wonderful.”

Figure 1. Attendees at the virtual National Math Festival (NMF), which took place in April 2021, entered via the Hopin Lobby.
Another main stage event featured the founders of Mathematically Gifted and Black: Erica Graham (Bryn Mawr College), Raegan Higgins (Texas Tech University), Candice Price (Smith College), and Shelby Wilson (Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory). Their session, which explored the genesis and impact of their website, was followed by a question-and-answer (Q&A) period with the audience. The four mathematicians discussed the importance of representation in mathematics, addressed the ways in which media portrayal of mathematicians has shifted in the past few decades, and commented on the origins of their website. “Typically [in the media] we see white men as mathematicians,” Graham said. “If you try to think about some sort of counterexample to that, there are very rarely additional representations of mathematicians who look like the four of us.”

This presentation highlighted a second NMF goal: increasing representation and humanizing mathematics in a way that the standard math curriculum often overlooks. A selection of film screenings and associated Q&As also furthered this objective:

  • 2016’s Hidden Figures, about the African American female mathematicians who worked for NASA during the Space Race 
  • Secrets of the Surface, the 2020 documentary about Maryam Mirzakhani — the first female and Iranian recipient of the Fields Medal
  • The Man Who Knew Infinity, the 2015 biopic of Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan.

Many of the special events were recorded and are available on the NMF website.

The SIAM Education Committee hosted a number of sessions and a booth at the NMF to encourage festival attendees to interact with applied mathematicians and learn about careers in applied math. We decided to organize “Meet a Mathematician” sessions, which were inspired by a similar series of interviews by the Girls Talk Math summer camp in 2020. We invited seven mathematicians from diverse backgrounds and fields to speak about their lives, mathematical experiences, and use of math in their careers. The speakers were as follows:

  • Torina Lewis of the American Mathematical Society (AMS) detailed the AMS’s efforts to organize programs that engage, support, advance, and uplift the entire mathematical community
  • Kerisha Burke of Phillips 66 spoke about working in the energy industry as a midstream analyst
  • Mario Banuelos of California State University, Fresno explained how he uses math and computer programming to study biology, computer vision, and health
  • Tim Chartier of Davidson College discussed his work with sports analytics
  • Aaron Luttman of Pacific Northwest National Laboratory talked about his nuclear security research
  • Genetha Gray of Salesforce described how she incorporates mathematical models in human resource departments (see Figure 2)
  • Sara Del Valle of Los Alamos National Laboratory discussed epidemiology and her responsibilities at the lab.

These sessions were well attended—most had roughly 30 unique attendees—and generated engaging dialogue. Moreover, we compiled audience questions into a central document that the SIAM Education Committee will use when preparing for future outreach endeavors and festival appearances. SIAM volunteers helped the sessions run smoothly by monitoring the chat for questions, managing virtual attendees, and otherwise engaging in conversations.

Figure 2. Author Wesley Hamilton (left) and Genetha Gray of Salesforce prepare for a “Meet a Mathematician” session at the virtual National Math Festival (NMF) in April 2021.
Ferguson volunteered for two “Meet a Mathematician” sessions and reflected on the value of this type of outreach. “As a kid, I never actually saw what being a mathematician entails and always had this mental image of a man at a chalkboard in a university office,” he said. “But the two mathematicians I worked with—Genetha Gray and Aaron Luttman—have led such interesting careers that have taken them places I didn’t know you could go. I think it’s great to expose kids to the varied ways a mathematician can work so they can better connect themselves to the math that they learn.” The SIAM Education Committee expresses its deep gratitude to all participating speakers and thanks them for volunteering their time to engage with a curious and motivated group of festival attendees.

In addition to these sessions, SIAM also sponsored a booth that was staffed by both undergraduate and graduate students in applied mathematics. The booth aimed to humanize mathematics by providing attendees with the opportunity to ask students about their experiences with pursuing applied math degrees. Many festival-goers that dropped by were parents or educators who were interested in engaging their students with real-world math, although undergraduates, retired educators, and practicing mathematicians also attended. Approximately eight to 10 people—including several SIAM volunteers and one Hopin staff member who offered technical and logistical support—were at the SIAM booth at any given time throughout the weekend. In addition, the booth provided an opportunity for SIAM to share the following resources that highlight the stories of mathematicians from underrepresented groups:

The SIAM volunteers represented student chapters from nine institutions across the U.S.: Colorado School of Mines (Ethan Lewellin and Brendan Stewart); Virginia Tech (Jovan Zigic); Worcester Polytechnic Institute (Kayla Fabry); Indiana University of Pennsylvania (Aziegbemi Okisamen); University of Delaware (Nicholas Russell); Western Kentucky University (Ahmet Kaan Aydin); Arizona State University (Gabriela Navas-Zuloaga); California State University, Fresno (Mario Banuelos); and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (K. Medlin, Franklin Rea, Dylan Bruney, Andrew Ford, Austin Ferguson, Kate Daftari, Gargi Dixit, Mary Mac Cole, and Nick Tapp-Hughes). SIAM’s presence at the NMF would not have been possible without the time and hard work of all of these volunteers, and the SIAM Education Committee appreciates every one of them.

As this was the first-ever virtual iteration of the NMF, many presenters and volunteers were unsure of what to expect. By default, volunteers could see the number of attendees who were watching a booth or session at any given time, but only a few volunteers actually turned on their cameras. Moreover, the use of Hopin required that all participants learn a new virtual meeting environment. Nevertheless, the “Meet a Mathematician” sessions and the SIAM booth experienced a healthy level of engagement, and attendees actively asked questions and interacted with the speakers and volunteers. Linder Global Events, the NMF’s logistical organizer, offered plenty of training sessions for Hopin, and all of the presenters and volunteers were fully prepared at the start of each event.

The NMF continues to play an important role in exposing the broader community to the joy of mathematics. “SIAM puts boots on the ground at the NMF because we want to see the joy, beauty, and practice of mathematics shared with as many children and families as possible,” SIAM’s executive director Suzanne Weekes said. From film screenings and a mathematical rap workshop to career sessions with applied mathematicians, the 2021 festival had something for everyone. 

Wesley Hamilton recently graduated with a Ph.D. in mathematics from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and will start his position as a Wylie Assistant Professor at the University of Utah this summer. He also serves on the SIAM Education Committee.

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