Student Essay Contest

Another Contest Won

2016 AWM Essay Contest: Middle School Level Winner

By: Adun Oladeji Homeschool (Alpharetta, Georgia)

In beautiful San Diego, Laura Zehender wakes up and drives to the school where she works as a teacher. However, she doesn’t teach in a physical classroom, but a digital one. Laura works for Art of Problem Solving (AoPS), an online mathematics school for kids who are passionate about math and love challenges. She says, “I wanted a career in education, and math education was one of my particular interests. I agree with AoPS’s educational philosophy and knew I would be able to use the skills that I have well at AoPS.” Art of Problem Solving is a school for young talented students who are looking for more advanced math courses than their school offers, like Laura herself was.
She gets to work with some of the best math students in the world. She had been a math competitor in most of middle school and high school herself, and understands the students. Most of these students are doing advanced math, and some go on to represent America in the IMO (International Mathematics Olympiad).
Laura had always been talented in mathematics, so when she was in elementary school, her parents decided to take her and her brother out of the local public school and start homeschooling. She said “My parents inspired me with their work ethic and love of learning, since it was genuine and wasn’t forced (unlike some approaches to math which err too far on the “make math fun” side, and imply that everyone would automatically hate math if it wasn’t “made fun”.)”
Laura participated in many math competitions in middle school, such as the AMC 8 and MATHCOUNTS. It was difficult to participate in team competitions like MATHCOUNTS, because there weren’t many other homeschoolers in her area. She and her team still continued to compete in other math competitions. However, she recalls that “other competitions like the AMCs were difficult to arrange, as we had to find someone to proctor the exam for us that was both willing and qualified.” During middle and high school, she continued to participate in competitions such as PUMaC (Princeton University Mathematics Competition), HMMT (Harvard-MIT Mathematics Tournament), and USA Mathematical Talent Search. For these and other high school math meets, the members of her homeschool team were from all over the east coast – as far north as New York, and as far south as Georgia. Even in these competitions, she found that the number of girls competing was significantly lower than the number of boys.
She continued with math all the way into college. There were only four girls out of about fifty students in her math honors class at Stanford, but this was not the only time that there had been small percentages of girls in her courses. She was the only girl on her homeschool team, but that did not deter her. In college, she studied classics, mathematics, and computer science because while she loved math, she also loved Latin and Mythology, and was able to find a good balance at Stanford University.
She says, “While the historical knowledge and languages I learned as a Classics major don’t really apply to my job, I learned a lot about communicating ideas effectively and how to make a clear, logical argument. Definitely useful skills when trying to teach any subject, including math!” Studying Classics also gave her the chance to study abroad in Italy where she could visit lots of exciting ancient ruins. She originally intended to major in math, but ended up minoring instead. She realized that she didn’t want to continue on to math graduate school, but as she says, “I never changed my mind about thinking math is a beautiful subject, and I doubt I ever will.”
She had been a grader and class assistant with AoPS for four years, and upon graduating, she decided to apply for a job as a full-time teacher. A character trait that she likes to see in students is perseverance. As she puts it, “Probably perseverance – being able to work even on the material they don’t get right away. It’s obviously fine if they don’t understand all new concepts immediately (I certainly didn’t!), but it’s tough when students aren’t willing to keep thinking about a confusing concept or to try to find another way to solve a problem they’re stuck on.” She tries to motivate young people to love math and says, “My favorite part of the job is working with people! Whether I’m teaching a class or helping a parent figure out which of our classes would be the best fit for their child, I love being able to help students towards a better math education.
“As general advice for someone interested in a math/science career, my advice is to explore the topic you’re interested in and find challenging problems to try to solve. It will give you a sense of what’s going on in the field you’re interested in studying, and prepare you for the challenging problems you’ll inevitably encounter if you pursue a degree or career in math or science. For girls in particular, I found it was great to find another community that had other girls my age interested in math, like AoPS or eventually math camps.”
Laura has inspired many students, especially girls, that are interested in math to get involved in math activities, classes, and competitions. She continues to do this every day.
About the Student:
I am a 7th grade homeschooler in Georgia. I love math, and have been doing math competitions since I was in second grade. I am looking forward to doing other math competitions, like State MATHCOUNTS. I also am involved in many other activities, such as public speaking, guitar, piano, and math clubs. I would like to study to be a civil engineer or computer scientist when I go to college.