When Michelle Delcourt was presented with the choice between math or art summer programs in high school, she knew that by choosing mathematics, she’d never leave art far behind. “For me, math is a very creative process,” she said. “Math and art are very similar, the process of doing research in doing mathematics is similar to the way that I approach making a painting or seeing a piece of artwork.”
Now, the 5th year PhD candidate and winner of this year’s Graduate Student Leadership Award uses her love of math and art to engage young girls and underrepresented minority students in math through community outreach programs. She hopes that her approach could help attract students who might not otherwise choose mathematics.
“When I tell people I'm a mathematician, they tell me one of two things: ‘Oh, you must be incredibly smart,’ or ‘I always hated math.’ That frustrates me so much because higher mathematics is very different from what you see in the school system. I go into school systems and they (the students) love color and pattern and problem solving and all of this is what math is. It's not memorizing formulas, or multiplication facts, it's thinking creatively and solving problems,” she said.
“A lot of preconceptions can be formed at very young age. I ultimately want to be a professor and have grad students, and do research, but at that point it can be a little late to encourage people to love math. By college, you aren't reaching people who could potentially really enjoy it.” So, together with her colleagues in the Math department, Michelle took advanced mathematics into local schools and made it fun, creative, and accessible for students in middle and high school.
The resulting program, Sonia Math Day for high school girls at the University of Illinois is a free event that consists of a full day of lectures and hands-on activities for 25-30 girls from all over the Midwest. Over the past five events, Michelle and the students have explored the number theory behind card tricks, learned about isoperimetric inequalities by studying soap bubbles, looked at the probability theory behind the Monty Hall Problem (the premise of a game show that had even professional mathematicians stumped), and much more. During Fall 2015, the theme “Counting and Coloring” focused on graph theory and combinatorics, her personal field of research.
“These programs are what I would like to have done when I was in middle school or high school. It is deeply personal to me.”
Michelle has also served the Association for Women in Mathematics (AWM) for four years in a variety of roles. In the Illinois Geometry Lab (IGL), she served as Associate Manager (2013-2014) and Outreach Manager (2014-Present). In these positions, she organized three four-day Girls Engaged in Math and Science (GEMS) Workshops for middle school girls, over thirty field trips with local schools (reaching over a thousand participants), and five training sessions for local teachers. During Fall 2014, Spring 2015, and Fall 2015, she partnered with the Orpheum Children’s Science Museum in Champaign to create a free event occurring over four Saturday afternoons for 10-15 middle school girls, especially low-income and minority students.
For Michelle, the most rewarding part of her outreach experiences comes when something in the lesson finally clicks with her students. “In the GEMS workshops, I see the students interact with concepts that they wouldn't usually see until an undergrad- or a grad-level math class. They don’t know they are doing advanced mathematics but it clicks for them. They are playing with the models and making observations, and to them, it’s not math, it’s genuinely magic - these connections,” she said. “It’s my job to make sure that the math is there whether they understand and realize it’s there or not.”
“There's so many problems out there that we try to solve for the intrinsic beauty of mathematics. In my opinion it is art, and then we find applications [for that knowledge].”
Michelle is the winner of this year's Graduate Student Leadership Award. This award is sponsored by The Graduate College and its student advisory group, SAGE (Students Advising on Graduate Education). It was created to recognize graduate students who have exhibited outstanding service that has positively impacted the campus or wider Urbana-Champaign community. This year, five other graduate students were honored with Special Recognition for their leadership and service. Check out the full list of honorees.
Caitlin Edwards is the Communications Specialist at the Graduate College. She's currently pursuing a Master's of Science degree in Tourism Management at the university. Her research focuses on sustainable community development through tourism and in her free time, you can find her traveling, cooking, and exploring with her handsome pug, Torbin.