What an Olympic gold medalist can teach you about math

By: Anu Jokinen, Senior Product Marketing Manager, Renaissance Accelerated Math & Renaissance MathFacts in a Flash
 

Like millions around the world, I could not wait to watch the summer Olympics. During the Women’s 200m backstroke, U.S. swimmer Maya DiRado went after her biggest competitor with all her might. She was charging her way to another gold! Watching the event on serious tape delay didn’t keep me from inching ever closer to my television and cheering wildly. The talented swimmer won a total of four medals: 2 gold, 1 silver, and 1 bronze.

To be honest, I actually cheered the loudest when I heard she had an engineering degree from Stanford University—an Olympian who loved math! I had to learn more about her and hear what advice she had for young women entering the STEM field.

First of all, Maya, what was it like at the Rio Olympics?

“It’s this huge stimulus that’s hitting you in the face constantly as you try to also focus on the most important sporting event of your life. Instead of being a detractor from performance, the environment boosted my swimming. You see every country walking by as you go to the dining hall or bus, you get to hear all these languages and watch people interact. The food is different, the plumbing is different, the sleep schedule is different, but it’s part of the Olympic experience. Team USA does an amazing job of using the excitement to make us better instead of letting nerves take over. I had so many amazing moments with my teammates… in the wild excitement of winning a gold medal on a relay… [to] sitting in the common rooms on bean bags playing games before the meet started. I loved every second of it.”

You earned a Management Science and Engineering degree from Stanford University. Can you remember a moment in school when you recognized that math was a subject you truly loved?

“My school district allowed me to attend a more non-traditional math class. I loved it. The first part of class was a basic lecture. The second part featured a few longer and more complex problems. We would work through them as a group of four. You had to really understand the concepts and show your work. The process was a huge part of the grade. If you didn’t understand something, you could ask for help from your group instead of asking the whole class. Conversely, if someone in your group didn’t understand something, you had to explain the concepts… which is SO helpful for your own learning. This method is something that really stands out to me, to this day, and was crucial in developing my love of math.”

What inspired you to go into a STEM field?

“First, my dad, a civil engineer, was encouraging about the engineering field. I think our brains work in similar ways. I always thought I’d be an engineer. My dad recognized that [math] was my favorite subject, so he helped me think through what I could do with it. I also remember him showing me the NCAA March Madness Monte Carlo simulation he made on Excel. It was pretty awesome… the first time I saw what Excel could do besides line graphs!”

“Then, there were teachers who encouraged me to take the accelerated track, and those who taught the STEM subjects along the way cultivated my love and enjoyment of them.”

Has math helped you become a better swimmer?

“I’m very good at intervals (laughs)! [Swimmers practice “intervals” by doing repeated distances in a given time—time math required.] I enjoy the repetitions, patterns, and—dare I say—the monotony of it. It has also reinforced the step-wise process involved in setting goals and working toward them.”

Recent research has found that “women are 1.5 times as likely to leave the STEM pipeline after calculus,” not because of a lack of ability, but because they lack confidence in their abilities. What advice can you give young women about their confidence about math?

“I always wanted to feel like I completely mastered a skill or topic before feeling confident that I knew it. Even when I understood it better than my male peers, they would come across as more confident. My freshman year of Stanford, I took an advanced calculus course, and I struggled. It was theory based and very abstract. I didn’t do well, didn’t enjoy it, and thought it was a reflection of my math abilities. After that, I changed my major track and thought I couldn’t do engineering.”

“A year later, I took a linear algebra class, really enjoyed it, and realized I could definitely pursue engineering. I now tell girls that they can do the same and to not let a single class derail that dream. I think so much is realizing that you belong, and that you can handle it. Just because you don’t get it right away or others come across as more competent, it doesn’t mean they aren’t struggling as well. There are girls who will feel that they are out of their league, and, to them, I would stress that everyone struggles at some point. If you love it, keep at it. It’s been very rewarding for me.”

What can parents and teachers do to encourage more girls to go into STEM fields?

“To parents: research shows that if parents express math-phobia, girls are especially likely to shy away from it. Keep a positive attitude about math, and don’t talk about math in a ‘you-have-it-or-you-don’t’ tone. It is a set of skills that you can work on and improve.”

“To teachers: recognize that there are students, girls in particular, who are hesitant to speak up. Do what you can to remove the stigma attached to students raising a hand and being wrong, as it helps encourage students who would otherwise go unheard.”

Maya has officially retired from swimming and will be starting her career at McKinsey & Company in a few months. We wish Maya all the best as she enters this new phase of her life!

How do you encourage girls to get more involved in STEM? Share your tips in the comments below!

Students thrive with the right amount of struggle. See how Renaissance Accelerated Math® helps provide powerful practice to drive growth in this free infographic.

Anu Jokinen, Senior Product Marketing Manager, Renaissance Accelerated Math & Renaissance MathFacts in a Flash
Anu Jokinen is the Senior Product Marketing Manager of Accelerated Math and MathFacts in a Flash, and has been with the company for over 8 years. She has always been passionate about helping students reach their potential in math—first as an Algebra I tutor for peers during high school and later as the Director of Education at Sylvan Learning Center for students ranging in age from kindergarten through adult. In addition to her work with Renaissance, she has also worked with non-profit organizations to improve the learning environment of students in need.
Anu Jokinen, Senior Product Marketing Manager, Renaissance Accelerated Math & Renaissance MathFacts in a Flash
Anu Jokinen, Senior Product Marketing Manager, Renaissance Accelerated Math & Renaissance MathFacts in a Flash
Anu Jokinen is the Senior Product Marketing Manager of Accelerated Math and MathFacts in a Flash, and has been with the company for over 8 years. She has always been passionate about helping students reach their potential in math—first as an Algebra I tutor for peers during high school and later as the Director of Education at Sylvan Learning Center for students ranging in age from kindergarten through adult. In addition to her work with Renaissance, she has also worked with non-profit organizations to improve the learning environment of students in need.

46 Comments

  1. Kelsie Haggard says:

    WOW! That is great. I love to hear that a woman is successful in the STEM field. I was never one of those math girls but I know so many who were and hoped as we got older that they held on to the love of Math. Engineering is so male dominated that is is hard for females but I always want to shout ‘Yeah Girls!’ when I hear of a woman successful in the engineering field!

    • Anu Jokinen, Senior Product Marketing Manager, Renaissance Accelerated Math & Renaissance MathFacts in a Flash Anu Jokinen, Senior Product Marketing Manager, Renaissance Accelerated Math & MathFacts in a Flash says:

      So happy that you enjoyed this post, Kelsie. I am shouting “Yeah Girls!” right there with you!

  2. Dvawn Maza says:

    I would like to know more about STEM and how I can incorporate it in my classroom. Already, I have some of the things I read about it implemented in the fact that I use partners, team, and class strategies to solve problems a student might be having in an area. Also, we do solve ‘real world’ problems, but on an elementary level.

    • Anu Jokinen, Senior Product Marketing Manager, Renaissance Accelerated Math & Renaissance MathFacts in a Flash Anu Jokinen, Senior Product Marketing Manager, Renaissance Accelerated Math & MathFacts in a Flash says:

      I am happy to hear that you are utilizing partners and teams to help students solve problems! When students have the opportunity to make their thoughts public and critique the reasoning of others, it leads to deeper understanding. Here’s one idea—consider using children’s books as a way to introduce a STEM topic. Students often understand a concept better when it is told through a good story. Then, have your students work like scientists: identify a real-world problem related to that story, ask questions about the problem, generate some possible solutions, and explore those ideas through a hands-on activity! For some STEM-related book suggestions, please check out AR BookFinder at http://www.arbookfind.com/.

  3. Jay Myers says:

    Great interview! I will have to share this with my niece, who plans on majoring in Computer Science.

    • Anu Jokinen, Senior Product Marketing Manager, Renaissance Accelerated Math & Renaissance MathFacts in a Flash Anu Jokinen, Senior Product Marketing Manager, Renaissance Accelerated Math & MathFacts in a Flash says:

      I am thrilled to hear that your niece will be majoring in Computer Science! Thanks so much for sharing this blog post with her. I hope she finds inspiration and encouragement from Maya’s words. I wish your niece all the best and success in her future endeavor.

  4. Rita Platt says:

    I loved this but I have to admit, after struggling with math homework with my daughter last night, I am finding it hard to stay as positive about math as I should…

    • Anu Jokinen, Senior Product Marketing Manager, Renaissance Accelerated Math & Renaissance MathFacts in a Flash Anu Jokinen, Senior Product Marketing Manager, Renaissance Accelerated Math & MathFacts in a Flash says:

      When it comes to math, struggle is a good thing…and it’s normal! Doing math is about the process, not solely about getting the right answers. Breakthroughs often emerge from confusion and struggle. Tell your daughter to just keep at it! By doing so, you are helping her develop a growth mindset that will have lasting benefits.

      • Kim M says:

        Ah, yes. When my students would look at me in confusion and say how hard the math problems were, then I would say—“You can do it! I know it’s hard, but your brain is stretching, growing and getting smarter. Don’t give up; you must be hardworking and patient. This is when your very best learning is happening. Congratulations mathematicians!” From here, I would ask students to share their successes and/or struggles with one another. They learn so much from one another.

  5. Kim says:

    I encourage young women to join STEM by showing them all of the interesting and valuable lessons they learn.

    • Anu Jokinen, Senior Product Marketing Manager, Renaissance Accelerated Math & Renaissance MathFacts in a Flash Anu Jokinen, Senior Product Marketing Manager, Renaissance Accelerated Math & MathFacts in a Flash says:

      Yes, there a ton of interesting lessons young women can learn from being involved in STEM! We don’t want girls missing out on these amazing life experiences.

  6. Keita says:

    I think that we should encourage and push the girls just as hard as we push our young men. I feel that I have always pushed both and never realized that others do things differently.

    • Anu Jokinen, Senior Product Marketing Manager, Renaissance Accelerated Math & Renaissance MathFacts in a Flash Anu Jokinen, Senior Product Marketing Manager, Renaissance Accelerated Math & MathFacts in a Flash says:

      Absolutely! Thank you for pushing both girls and boys to reach their potential. There is no such thing as a math gene or a STEM gene. Everyone can learn these subjects. To help solve tomorrow’s problems, we need to pull ideas from both men and women. As a nation, we cannot afford to leave anyone out.

  7. Sarah says:

    I’ve encouraged girls to pursue STEM in after school clubs available.

    • Anu Jokinen, Senior Product Marketing Manager, Renaissance Accelerated Math & Renaissance MathFacts in a Flash Anu Jokinen, Senior Product Marketing Manager, Renaissance Accelerated Math & MathFacts in a Flash says:

      This is fantastic! After-school programs offer another wonderful opportunity for girls to experiment with STEM ideas in real-world situations. All students need multiple and varied opportunities to explore and practice with STEM concepts to fully understand and become fluent in these subjects.

  8. Deb Allen says:

    In the low grades it is encouraging to show/talk about women in STEM areas. They also need to know that math isn’t hereditary. Just because your parents weren’t math whizzes doesn’t mean you can’t be

    • Anu Jokinen, Senior Product Marketing Manager, Renaissance Accelerated Math & Renaissance MathFacts in a Flash Anu Jokinen, Senior Product Marketing Manager, Renaissance Accelerated Math & MathFacts in a Flash says:

      Absolutely. A great way to find children’s books about women in STEM is to use AR BookFinder at http://www.arbookfind.com/. It’s a free tool! You can search for keywords such as women mathematicians, women engineers, and women scientists.

  9. christina says:

    I code myself so bringing all my students into the coding world is a highlight of my year. I love letting the girls create using our 3D printer .

    • Anu Jokinen, Senior Product Marketing Manager, Renaissance Accelerated Math & Renaissance MathFacts in a Flash Anu Jokinen, Senior Product Marketing Manager, Renaissance Accelerated Math & MathFacts in a Flash says:

      This is so cool, Christina. You always incorporate such amazing activities into your lessons. I am sure your girls love seeing their ideas come to life with the 3D printer! Can I attend your class?

  10. Michelle says:

    Maya has some motivational comments to make and I am sure that she will continue to inspire young women everywhere!

    • Anu Jokinen, Senior Product Marketing Manager, Renaissance Accelerated Math & Renaissance MathFacts in a Flash Anu Jokinen, Senior Product Marketing Manager, Renaissance Accelerated Math & MathFacts in a Flash says:

      I agree, she was spot on with all of her comments. I am sure she is going to make a huge difference in the lives of all the young women who read this. Her words continue to “swim” in my own head and inspire me!

  11. Carolina says:

    I realized I was that parent with the”math phobia” when I heard my oldest daughter repeat what I often said, ” I hate math.” It didn’t dawn on me until I heard it from her and no longer said those words and encouraged STEM all the way!

    • Anu Jokinen, Senior Product Marketing Manager, Renaissance Accelerated Math & Renaissance MathFacts in a Flash Anu Jokinen, Senior Product Marketing Manager, Renaissance Accelerated Math & MathFacts in a Flash says:

      Thank you very much for sharing your story with us, Carolina. You have just inspired many other parents to no longer say those words. Thank you for encouraging your daughter to explore all the wonders of STEM!

  12. Narda Lugo says:

    I love how women are learning more about STEM.

    • Anu Jokinen, Senior Product Marketing Manager, Renaissance Accelerated Math & Renaissance MathFacts in a Flash Anu Jokinen, Senior Product Marketing Manager, Renaissance Accelerated Math & MathFacts in a Flash says:

      I do, too! Women contribute so much to the STEM community.

  13. Melissa Robles says:

    I have encouraged girls in the area of STEM by bringing a Makerspace and Technology centers to my library. Students are encouraged to explore their potential creativity through the use of these centers. I host a Makerspace club on Mondays afterschool in the library and students are encouraged to stop by an start exploring.

    • Anu Jokinen, Senior Product Marketing Manager, Renaissance Accelerated Math & Renaissance MathFacts in a Flash Anu Jokinen, Senior Product Marketing Manager, Renaissance Accelerated Math & MathFacts in a Flash says:

      Wow! This is a great idea. Thank you for providing your students with this incredible opportunity to nurture their curiosity about STEM.

  14. Belinda says:

    I encourage all of my students to participate and complete group assignments.

    • Anu Jokinen, Senior Product Marketing Manager, Renaissance Accelerated Math & Renaissance MathFacts in a Flash Anu Jokinen, Senior Product Marketing Manager, Renaissance Accelerated Math & MathFacts in a Flash says:

      That’s terrific! Students get really excited about math when they have the opportunity to collaborate with their peers on a variety of math problems.

  15. Carmen Garza says:

    Being the librarian in an early college high school, I have the unique opportunity of working with many high school students taking concurrent college classes and quite a few even earning Associates Degrees while in high school. This gives me ample opportunities to motivate girls to study STEM subjects and provide resources that they may need.

    • Anu Jokinen, Senior Product Marketing Manager, Renaissance Accelerated Math & Renaissance MathFacts in a Flash Anu Jokinen, Senior Product Marketing Manager, Renaissance Accelerated Math & MathFacts in a Flash says:

      Thank you, Carmen, for helping your students develop a passion for STEM!

  16. Meredith Sanders says:

    She’s a great inspiration to share with our students!

  17. Braley Speagle says:

    I always encourage female students to join STEM clubs at our school. I am also trying to learn more about the MakerSpace at my school, in order to help teachers incorporate STEM activities into all curricular areas.

    • Anu Jokinen, Senior Product Marketing Manager, Renaissance Accelerated Math & Renaissance MathFacts in a Flash Anu Jokinen, Senior Product Marketing Manager, Renaissance Accelerated Math & MathFacts in a Flash says:

      That’s awesome to hear, Braley. What are some of the types of STEM activities teachers are incorporating?

  18. David Keech says:

    I talk with all of my students about careers as we work on problems, sharing how our learning targets are related to various careers. I teach an advanced group of 7th graders who are taking 7th and 8th grade math, and there are young ladies in the class who have high ambitions, all involving mathematics to a high degree.

  19. Renee Graham says:

    This is a must read article for all parents, especially parents of girls. I am sending it to my two daughters, who have daughters of their own.

    • Anu Jokinen, Senior Product Marketing Manager, Renaissance Accelerated Math & Renaissance MathFacts in a Flash Anu Jokinen, Senior Product Marketing Manager, Renaissance Accelerated Math & MathFacts in a Flash says:

      Thank you very much for sharing this article with the women in your life! I hope they find just as much inspiration from it as you did.

  20. Sheila Gerrish says:

    I appreciated hearing that Maya did not let one college math course derail her future. So many students believe that if they do not “get it” right away, they must not be good at math, and give up. Her story is an important one to share!

    • Anu Jokinen, Senior Product Marketing Manager, Renaissance Accelerated Math & Renaissance MathFacts in a Flash Anu Jokinen, Senior Product Marketing Manager, Renaissance Accelerated Math & MathFacts in a Flash says:

      Me, too! I loved hearing Maya say this. I think that girls will also find it liberating to hear that it is okay for them to struggle with something. Often, girls are taught to avoid risk and failure. They feel they have to be “perfect” at something right from the beginning. If they are not, then they feel it is not for them. But STEM is ALL about trial and error! It is important for girls to welcome mistakes as a way to learn and, as Maya said, “keep at it!”

  21. Francine Canarios says:

    When we create hands-on, real life activities students want to be involved. If we have created a safe environment with engaging STEM activities, girls and boys will join in.

    • Anu Jokinen, Senior Product Marketing Manager, Renaissance Accelerated Math & Renaissance MathFacts in a Flash Anu Jokinen, Senior Product Marketing Manager, Renaissance Accelerated Math & MathFacts in a Flash says:

      Exactly! Thank you for creating that safe environment for your students to learn.

  22. Fatima Peters says:

    What an amazing article! I couldn’t agree more with the saying “hard work pays off”, Maya is truly an inspiration to all! I will definitely be sharing this article with the math teachers at school so they too can share this article with their students!

    • Anu Jokinen, Senior Product Marketing Manager, Renaissance Accelerated Math & Renaissance MathFacts in a Flash Anu Jokinen, Senior Product Marketing Manager, Renaissance Accelerated Math & MathFacts in a Flash says:

      I agree! Maya is an inspiration to all. Thanks for sharing this article with your fellow teachers and students. It is all about the practice you put day in and day out.

  23. emilio zamora says:

    a great inspiration to all math students

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *