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Michigan math champ charts her path to career gold

Shawn D. Lewis
The Detroit News

Jackie Bredenberg knows her way around an isosceles triangle, a parallelogram and anything else in the mathematics stratosphere.

So much so, she is only the second female to win Gold #1 designation in the 58 years of the Michigan Math Prize Competition for high school students and exceptional middle school students, according to Chris Gardiner, head of the math department at Eastern Michigan University.

And Bredenberg did it not just once, but twice in a row — in 2013-14 and 2014-15. (The previous female winner was Linda Chen of Ann Arbor in 1991.)

Acing math courses and competitions can lead to dream jobs. Bredenberg graduated from Detroit Country Day School last month and four days later began working as an intern at HP Labs in Palo Alto, California.

“I am programming with their systems software team,” said Bredenberg, 18, who’s originally from Royal Oak. “It’s a fantastic job. I have learned so much already. I really enjoy thinking through a solution and then programming it and watching the pieces come together.

Bredenberg, who hopes to pursue a career in computer science, won $2,500 as the top prize. The top 50 competitors share $20,000 in scholarship money every year. She will enroll at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology this fall.

“I’ve always liked playing around with numbers and puzzles,” said Bredenberg. “After I skipped fifth-grade math, I started to learn some really cool topics in math. Then in sixth grade, I had a fantastic Algebra 1 teacher, and I started to absolutely love math as I discovered how powerful it could be to solve problems.”

Besides the usual math classes, she’s also taken several courses of calculus.

But those sorts of brainiac classes don’t appeal to enough girls, according to the National Center for Women & Information Technology.

On their Web page, the first question they ask is: “Technology is everywhere, but where are the girls?”

The center is a community of more than 600 universities, companies, nonprofits and government organizations nationwide working to increase women’s participation in computing and technology.

According to the center, women earn 57 percent of all undergraduate degrees, 42 percent of all undergraduate math and statistics degrees, but only 18 percent of all undergraduate computer and information science degrees.

The U.S. Department of Labor estimates that by 2020, there will be more than 1.4 million computing-related job openings. But more than two-thirds of the jobs could go unfilled due to the insufficient pool of college graduates with computing-related degrees. Math is a crucial component in the STEM (Science Technology, Engineering and Math) movement growing in schools across the country.

Ross Arseneau, a longtime math teacher at Detroit Country Day School, said he has seen great progress from girls in mathematics during his time at DCDS.

“Some of the highest level courses that I taught 28 years ago consisted entirely of boys, but that has changed in recent years. Four years ago, my class of multivariable calculus consisted of five girls and seven boys and my differential equations course from two years ago was two girls and three boys.”

Bredenberg’s mother said she recognized her daughter’s affinity for math at an early age.

“When Jackie was in preschool, her teacher told me that she was completing Dot-to-Dot puzzles of 117 dots, backward, because working them forward was boring,” said her mom, Kathleen DeMeulemeeser. “Many students who are good at math come to love the subject through enjoyable pastimes like thinking games and logic puzzles. It’s an easy way for parents to encourage mathematical thinking long before students begin to formally study math in school.”

The Michigan Mathematics Prize Competition is sponsored by the Michigan section of the Mathematical Association of America to encourage students to develop their interests and abilities in mathematics.

Ruth Favro, a retired math and computer science professor at Lawrence Technological University, recruited Bredenberg when she was in the ninth grade to participate in the Michigan Allstars Math Team (which isn’t affiliated with MMPC).

She said role models are important, as are mentors.

“That Jackie was Gold #1 even once is important,” she said. “That she maintained that place for a second year shows it was not a random happening. And she has done this while also putting in the time to compete in varsity track in addition to attending to the rest of her studies. She is a true mathlete.”

Part I of the MMPC is open to all students in Michigan high schools. This exam consists of 40 multiple-choice questions involving topics from high school mathematics.

From over 6,000 participants in Part I, the top 1,000 students are invited to take Part II of the MMPC. On Part II of the exam, students work on five challenging problems and write their solutions providing full justification and proof of their claims.

Middle- and high school students can get in the game by registering for the 2015-16 competition beginning Sept. 17. The Part I exam date begins Oct. 6, Part II, Dec. 9 and the awards banquet will be held March 12, 2016.

The Mathematical Association of America is the largest professional society that focuses on mathematics accessible at the undergraduate level. Their mission is to “advance the mathematical sciences, especially at the collegiate level.”

Arseneau said even though more female students are taking high-level courses, Bredenberg’s achievements set her apart.

“We encourage all students, male and female, to participate in academic competitions,” he said. “In mathematics, the winners in state, national, and international competitions tend to be male, so what Jackie has done can be seen as record-setting.”


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