Math contests can encourage, inspire and challenge students, but to whom do they appeal and why? Harvey Mudd College senior Dina Sinclair will use her Thomas J. Watson Fellowship to travel the world seeking answers to these questions.
Sinclair is one of 40 Watson Fellows selected from a group of 149 finalists nominated by 40 participating institutions. This year’s class of Fellows comes from 21 states and six countries and exhibits a broad range of academic specialty, socio-economic background and life experience. As the 49th class of Watson Fellows, they’ll traverse 67 countries exploring a variety of topics, including pediatric cancer treatment, citizen journalism, animation, autonomous vehicles, immigration, megacities and wildfire management. All fellows receive a $30,000 stipend.
Sinclair, a mathematics major and 2016 Goldwater Scholarship recipient, plans to begin her fellowship research in Brazil this July at the International Math Olympiad. She will look at math culture in different countries, using high school math contests as a gauge. “I’m curious what kinds of cultural and logistical choices communities can make while hosting math contests that make those contests more accessible to a wide group of students, especially women,” she says. “I’m planning on spending my time at math contests and in math classrooms, talking to students, teachers, and contest writers and organizers.”
From Brazil, she’ll head to Argentina and Senegal, then to China, Japan, Finland and Romania. “These places have a really wide variety of math cultures and histories, and a wide range of female participation in math contests. I’m really excited to see what kinds of differences between these countries I’ll find.”
Sinclair has been interested in math and math culture since grade school. “I did a lot of math contests in high school. In some, I was the only girl around, while in others I was part of an all-girl team. I could never quite put my finger on why some contests attracted girls while others didn’t, and it’s something I’ve kept thinking about throughout college.”
Last summer, Sinclair worked with Professor of Mathematics Rachel Levy doing math education research, including working with teachers in the Pomona School District on math modeling in their classrooms. Sinclair and Levy also traveled to South Korea to teach an engineering math course. “Traveling to Korea was a great way to see math education in a different culture, and helping local teachers teach math modeling instilled my desire to think not only about the content we teach in the classroom but the culture and norms behind that content that foster or inhibit learning,” Sinclair says.
The fellowship will no doubt provide Sinclair with great opportunities as well as challenges, and she looks forward to both. “I’m really excited to immerse myself in new cultures. It’ll be hard sometimes to find connections and a place to live in countries where I don’t speak the language, but I’m looking forward to that challenge,” she says. “I’m really excited to learn from math communities across the world and better understand how high school math culture impacts students. Hopefully, I’ll be able to bring some of that knowledge home with me and implement positive change within my own mathematics communities.”