By Mimi McKinnis
When Mayumi Suzue-Pan, a 17-year-old high school junior from Winnetka, Illinois, set out to find opportunities that combined her two passions of figure skating and mathematics, she came up empty-handed.
So she created her own.
“I was looking for things to get involved in along those lines because those are my two passions,” she said. “I was trying to see if anyone had done it before and for ways I could combine my areas of expertise. That’s when I came across a graduate school project by a girl from MIT that combined dance and math. I had done some jazz and ballet to help my skating over the years, but it was never really my main thing. I knew enough, though, to see the connections between the two, and I thought, ‘Why not do something with figure skating and math?’
“From there, I got really excited and started creating a program myself. I had tried to find some research that combines skating and math, but I couldn’t really find anything, so I had to take my background and combine everything that I know to make something that would be fun for the kids who are participating, and something that would help them to learn.”
With the idea sparked inside her mind, Suzue-Pan, an Excel senior competitor and U.S. Figure Skating gold medalist in moves in the field and freestyle, channeled her own research and experience to create S.K.A.T.E. (Solving Kinesthetically and Transforming Education) for Girls — a program designed to close the gender gap in STEM by teaching math through figure skating lessons.
“I’ve definitely experienced a lot of times in math class or in mathematical extracurriculars where it’s difficult to be seen the same as the rest of the people who are involved,” Suzue-Pan said. “I’m the only girl in my grade on the math team. That’s difficult in a large school. There are 4,000-plus kids, and I’m the only girl who does it. You definitely feel looked down upon or less included for the sole reason of being a girl. But having a place where I felt lonely and less than others gave me a feeling that I could take and say, ‘I don’t want other girls to ever feel like this.’”
The curriculum, developed by Suzue-Pan herself, is targeted for beginning skaters from sixth through eighth grade — a crucial time when both skating and math programs see a drop in participation.
“In middle school people really start to make levels out of where you are in learning,” Suzue-Pan said. “You start to look at what you’re doing and you decide for yourself if you’re good at it or if you’re bad at it. I think for girls, a lot of them lose interest once they see a report card or transcript statement that puts them at a lower level in math. Once this sort of differentiation of being average, above or below begins, it can be unmotivating. It’s hard to see the point when you’re not the best at something, and you tell yourself you’re just not good at it, or you’ll never be good at it. It’s tough for that age group to get past and persevere beyond. But you’re not worth less than other students. You just need the material to make sense to you.
“It’s the same thing on the ice. You can see skaters four times younger than you landing jumps you’ve never even thought about trying, and it can create a frustrating place where everyone around you is better than you. But this program brings people together in a way where everyone is learning together.”
After several months of preparation, from building a website to securing ice time, recruiting students and developing a curriculum, S.K.A.T.E. for Girls held its first six-week session in January and February at the Centennial Ice Rink in Wilmette, Illinois. The inaugural session included both on-ice and off-ice skills lessons, which allowed participants to apply their newfound courage and confidence in the classroom.
“When it’s a free program, no one is really committed, so I knew it could be really dicey as far as turnout,” Suzue-Pan said. “But most kids showed up, and I was able to maintain everybody for the whole six weeks, which was really awesome. And everyone seemed to really enjoy the programming, and the opportunity to learn both skills side-by-side.
“We were able to tackle things like adding and subtracting negative numbers, which is something I’d say is really prominent in middle school math. I remember when I was learning it, I had a difficult time because, just like with skating, you don’t really get it unless you practice it. A lot of the time, you don’t see or understand the reason behind the math that you’re doing. So we drew out a number line on the ice from negative 10 to positive 10. We would ask the students different types of math questions in that range so they could do swizzles down the line to see the progression from zero on both sides to figure it out. They would swizzle forward to add, then to subtract, swizzle backwards. That allowed them to see the math and do it for themselves. Then for the off-ice component, we did something similar. We drew out a number line and they could see it in their mind and step into how they experienced it before to get the correct answers.”
With its initial launch an admittedly unexpected success, Suzue-Pan hopes those first six weeks are just the beginning. To continue the momentum, S.K.A.T.E. for Girls will launch a new session in May, complete with a more advanced freestyle curriculum, with plans to continue other activities and fundraisers that engage participants and build a community (like their pie-your-teacher event for Pi Day, March 14, or 3.14). The ultimate goal? To expand the opportunity to girls nationwide.
“I plan to attend a four-year college. I’m not exactly sure where that will be, but I plan to compete in collegiate skating and bring S.K.A.T.E. for Girls wherever I go,” Suzue-Pan said. “Whether that’s close to home or farther away, I plan to expand this program to different communities, and I’d love to see it run in different rinks around the country. I want to give girls the opportunity, wherever they are, to have the S.K.A.T.E. for Girls experience.
“I’ve had my own experiences with skating and with math. The reason why we get so into the things we love is because of the people you have around you, and I’m really thankful I had that family and support in both areas. A lot of people don’t have the chance to experience that in one lane, let alone both. A really big part of missing success is not being able to afford math tutoring or skating lessons, so you’re not afforded the opportunity to learn either one. That’s one of the main reasons why I’m doing what I’m doing. As girls get older, having a community of women they can work with is so uncommon to find, especially in math. Being able to provide this experience at such a young age can show girls that they can learn math, and they can learn skating—they can learn whatever they put their mind to — and I think that’s something huge.”
For more information on S.K.A.T.E. for Girls, visit https://www.skateforgirls.org/.