2020 Gem Project Fellow Award Honoree Spotlight – Applicant’s Essay: Meet Kaci Xie

Kaci Xie | Yale University

Meet other 2020 honorees: Yasmine Boto or Ishva Mehta

Ms. Math at Alpharetta High: A Tale of Two Teams

“Is there Math Team today?”

Every time teammates ask me this question, my heart warms. Math Team has 30 dedicated members that tackle problems and cohost the North Fulton Math Tournament, but the team wasn’t always in this shape.

The comradery and mutual interest in problem-solving strategies among Math Team members beckoned to me in middle school. Entering high school, however, my teammates began to disappear due to poor management and lack of interest, causing Math Team to dwindle to a fourth its original size. Oftentimes, I feared that the student-run organization would vanish altogether, but I felt unqualified to take initiative because of my failures at competitions–until I became co-captain my junior year.

For my first few meetings as an officer, leading competitors vastly better than me felt egregious; I was merely an enthusiast, not a distinguished mastermind. Nevertheless, I felt responsible for re-invigorating the depleted team spirit, so I preoccupied myself with the administrative aspect of the organization: registering for competitions, scourging test archives, and finding every available resource on the web that could potentially help a member score higher individually. At every weekly meeting, my objective was no longer to be the best; it became about providing tools for others to become their best. Soon, providing others with ways to reach their personal best became not only my mission in Math Team, but also in Alpharetta High School’s Mu Alpha Theta.

Alpharetta High School’s Math National Honor Society, known as Mu Alpha Theta (MAO), is a nondiscriminatory Wakanda crafted by math enthusiasts to shelter struggling math students from the harsh realities of grades and test scores. Through numbers and notations, members equip their peers with an analytical compass to guide their trek through high school.

I remember noticing this empowerment with my first “tutee” Maia. At the start of each tutoring session, boredom and disinterest masked the confusion and frustration she harbored towards Algebra 1. But as the hour progressed, I always noticed her becoming increasingly confident about her problem-solving capabilities, causing every session to end with her happily venturing home with all her problems solved. I saw a similar change with Angel, the Geometry student I tutored. In his case, the pacing of the class rendered him lost after every lesson, causing him to shy away from problems within his capabilities. Yet, a mere 45 minutes spent dissecting the parts of a parabola not only transformed the way he tackled tests but also the way he dominated the football field.

Seeing how my tutoring instilled confidence inspired me to show more people the power behind mathematics. At the time, my chapter organized tutoring through a public spreadsheet. Not only did this former system jeopardize tutee privacy, but it also encouraged members to cherrypick the people they wanted to tutor, causing a lot of people who needed help to go unnoticed. I wondered if there was a method to make tutoring more accessible and confidential, and thus, it became my mission to help as many students as possible with the subject I adored the most.

Using Microsoft Excel, I crafted an elaborate system that automatically connected struggling students with members through mail merging and formulas. Every student that enlisted help through our Google Form would be assigned to and contacted by a member within 24 hours. Tutee information was only shared with the tutor they were assigned.

I constantly monitored my complex creation. In fact, I became so immersed in extending tutoring services that Google Drive could identify which peer tutoring files I typically opened at 4:00 in the afternoon.

My spreadsheet system has provided countless struggling math students the help they need for the past two years. In fact, I am happy to report that my chapter spent 387 hours tutoring last semester. In addition to traditional face-to-face tutoring, we were able to introduce FaceTime and Google Hangouts tutoring sessions so that transportation will not limit students’ abilities to learn. We also hosted group tutoring sessions every day the week before finals in hopes of providing students (and members) extra chances for tutoring. Now, due to the pandemic, we have switched to ZOOM tutoring sessions to help those at risk of failing or not graduating. Even though we are separated, we have found ways to connect through monitors and mathematics.

Through the peer tutoring program and Math Team, mathematics at Alpharetta High School is no longer simply core curriculum; it is a method of change. As a proud head executive of both organizations, I serve to transform posets and postulates into a lens to view the world, not the basis of textbook problems students begrudgingly do. Next year, I have plans for the future MAO officers to transform my spreadsheet system into a Wix website. And Math Team? Well, the new officers are busy preparing material to hopefully help us reach our decade long goal of competing at the Harvard-MIT Math Tournament.

I hope Mu Alpha Theta continues to grow its membership and broaden its goals to include social change. Some of the students who need help are reluctant to ask because they feel stigmatized for seeking help; with social events, I think that stigma will soon be demolished. I also wish that Math Team follows through with collaborations with other STEM organizations at Alpharetta High; I had a STEM Movie Night planned in collaboration with Girls Who Code, Women in STEM, and Science National Honor Society that unfortunately got canceled due to COVID-19. And finally, I hope MNHS finds ways to extend services beyond the high school to other schools that may not have a similar tutoring program. MNHS had a STEM outreach campaign prepared for a local middle school that was also unfortunately canceled.

My involvement with peer tutoring and competitive math has inspired me to pursue data science/statistics in college. Hoping to show others the stories hidden among statistical values, I use Excel so others can excel.