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Madison Metropolitan School District

West High, Randall Elementary Club Grows Female Empowerment in Mathematics Exponentially

West High, Randall Elementary Club Grows Female Empowerment in Mathematics Exponentially

Juliette McMurray still remembers how she felt when her second grade teacher told her she was good at math. “It was a total confidence boost,” the sophomore at West High said. But that motivation waned a few years later, when McMurray scored one point too low on a standardized test to be placed in an advanced math group, which was made up mostly of male students. 

While this didn’t permanently alter her passion for math – McMurray still lists the subject as her favorite – she wanted to find a way for all girls to experience the same encouragement she had. 

This passion led her and her friends to create the Girls Empowerment in Mathematics (GEM) club at West High, a mentorship program with fifth grade girls at Randall Elementary. The club is geared toward building younger students’ confidence in math and helping the next generation of girls pursue careers in STEM. Once a week, GEM members walk over to Randall to teach an engaging, hands-on math lesson to students – a full-circle moment for many of the founding members who attended school there.

“They deserve to feel good about themselves and feel empowered in math,” McMurray said. “If I can make one girl feel more confident, then I’ve done my job. I just want one girl to feel like GEM has made a positive change in their life.” 

Getting dozens of elementary students to choose a math lesson over recess seems like an impossible task, especially on an unusually sunny and warm March afternoon. Nevertheless, the cafeteria was filled with students eagerly waiting to celebrate the one holiday centered around a mathematical constant: Pi Day. 

GEM leaders came prepared with color-coded lesson plans, schedules, and instructions – which they call an “aGEMda” – along with craft supplies for the activity. West students shared the history and significance of the neverending number before jumping into their project. Students worked together to create a paper link chain of the first 25 digits of pi, with each paper striprepresenting a different digit. Randall students also decorated their own paper pi(e) plates, testing out the ratio of the circle's circumference to its diameter.

Advanced learning specialist Darby Puglielli supervises the club at Randall, and shared that  uplifting the elementary students’ joy in these math-based activities, specifically in fifth grade, is key for their future success in the subject. 

“Plenty of studies show that girls’ identity as mathematicians sort of tanks once they hit middle school,” Puglielli said. “I see GEM Club as sort of an inoculation boost, so that they can keep confidently saying ‘I am a mathematician, I love math.’”

GEM members plan lessons throughout the year to ensure multiple topics and types of learning are explored. This fall, the club instituted “No Worksheet November,” to encourage more interactive learning. After reciting every single lyric of “The Pi Song (100 Digits of π),” fifth grade student Kendra recalled her favorite activity was PEMDAS Day. Students had practiced the order of operations for parentheses, exponents, multiplication, division, addition, and subtraction by bopping around from station to station to solve an equation.

“We’re familiarizing them with concepts that would be considered advanced, that they might encounter later in middle school and be able to say, ‘Oh, I know what this is!’” club co-founder Sophia Locher said. “And that might help them really fall in love with the subject itself.”

At the end of the Pi Day lesson, Kendra had one more question for the GEM members: “Can we do the periodic table next?”