What Inspired Me To Serve: Math Camp

Contributed by Deanna Linn

After graduating from college with a physics degree, I decided to take a gap year before applying to graduate school. I wanted to spend some time outside of the classroom, but I also wanted the opportunity to stay in science and continue to do STEM outreach.

Deanna with With her favorite Woman in STEM, Rosalind FranklinI have always been interested in community service. In high school, I was involved in Key Club, a student-led service organization, and I volunteered at the afterschool program helping elementary school students with math and reading homework. In college, I volunteered at a science center where I hosted science birthday parties with themes from Bubbles to Creepy Crawly. Kids loved everything from being put inside a giant bubble and to trying to race to pop them. During the Creepy Crawly party, I stayed away from the snake, but I liked showing the kids our turtle, hamsters, and stick insects. I also narrated planetarium shows for school groups, birthday parties, and fundraising events. The adults had as much fun as the kids in the portable planetarium dome. I really enjoyed volunteering in these programs, so it was clear to me that I wanted to spend my gap year doing STEM outreach. The AmeriCorps VISTA (Volunteer In Service To America) program seemed to be a perfect opportunity to continue to serve in a much greater capacity, so I applied through Montana Campus Compact in order to stay close to home and be near the mountains.

Thinking back, I remember sitting on my bed at two in the morning, filling out my AmeriCorps VISTA application, the deadline imminent. The question: “Why do you volunteer?” really stood out to me. I had always enjoyed working with kids, sharing my enthusiasm for math and science with them. This time though, I thought about what led me to study physics. I understood the question as: “Why do you want to volunteer?” I thought back to how frustrated I was in high school, when I felt that athletics were emphasized to a greater degree than academic pursuits. I was involved in several sports teams (including cross country, track, and ice hockey) and I cherish what I learned as an athlete. However, I loved math and couldn't find anyone who loved it as much as I did. I wanted to learn more about math and its applications, but there weren’t as many opportunities in my small town. 

Deanna at the Catapalooza booth, recruiting MSU students for STEMIn high school, I remember my friends would talk about all the sports camps they were going to be involved in during the summer, and I wanted to have similar summer plans too. But, instead of a sports camp, I wanted to go to math camp. I had saved money so I could afford to pay about $800 for a camp, but when I looked online all the camps were $5,000 or more. I couldn’t afford that high cost, and neither could my parents. But I was determined, and I kept searching. Though I found several STEM summer program opportunities in engineering and science, my heart was set on math and nothing was going to change that.

Somehow I found a math camp that I could afford with my savings. I remember running up the stairs with excitement to tell my mom about the opportunity. It was the perfect fit for me. I had finally found the camp that I wanted to attend, and now it was a matter of having a solid application. I looked at the pictures of all of the girls that had previously attended, and wondered what they had done or said in their applications to gain acceptance? In my essay, I wrote about the mathematician Eratosthenes, and how he calculated the circumference of the Earth by measuring the shadows of poles. Over the summer, I had read that story several times in one of my favorite books, "Theories for Everything: An Illustrated History of Science," and it had inspired me to learn more about the applications of geometry.

NanoDays activity with DeannaEventually I did get accepted, and met some amazing people with similar interests. Something I’d been longing for. But I realized there was a huge difference between my own knowledge and the knowledge of others, which seemed to stem from socio-economic differences. Luckily that didn’t deter me, I was just excited to be surrounded by people who enjoyed math as much as I did.

After reading the question about service on the AmeriCorps VISTA application, I wondered how many other kids in small towns enjoy their math and science classes but don't have access to the same resources as students in bigger cities? I thought about how many kids don’t get the opportunity to go to museums, science centers, or outreach events at colleges and universities because they live too far away.

I know how frustrating it feels to not have access to those opportunities in one’s community, and that is why I wanted to volunteer. I hoped to bring STEM resources to students in small towns and encourage them to pursue their dreams to become mathematicians, scientists, and engineers. I also wanted to learn the skills required to make those opportunities available in rural communities. I know first-hand how hard it is to keep that fire burning inside of you when there aren’t opportunities to participate in programs like Mathcounts or high school science fairs (sadly, my school didn’t have these programs), or when no one is there to share in your excitement after you first learn about how Erasthotenes first measured the circumference of the Earth! If I hadn't found that camp, I don’t think I would have continued to study the math subjects that eventually led me to appreciate and study physics. Looking back on my experience, it took just one informal STEM educational program to ignite my enthusiasm to pursue physics, and through AmeriCorps I wanted the chance to provide students from rural communities with the same opportunity.

Shortly after they received my application, I received a call from Montana Campus Compact. They sent my application to a few positions in Montana that they believed were a good fit--I was ecstatic! EventuallyDeanna Linn with her math camp group in 2008. I heard from Suzi Taylor at the Montana Girls STEM Collaborative, and we scheduled a Skype meeting for an interview. I am so grateful that Suzi recognized my potential and chose me. She invited me to Montana, and has given me a chance to learn how to support kids with similar backgrounds through informal science educational opportunities and fantastic, supportive mentors.

Deanna Linn is the Americorps VISTA member with the Montana Girls STEM Collaborative. She is pictured here with her math camp group. Deanna is in the front row, first person from the right.