Kyna Airriess, a Coronado resident and recent graduate of High Tech High-Point Loma, is one of eight winners of the Strogatz Math Award, presented through the auspices of the National Museum of Mathematics. Airriess is the winner of 200 ‘Pi Dollars,’ which in the non-mathematics world equates to $628.32 (200 x 3.14159 or Pi). The award is named after Dr. Steven Strogatz, the Jacob Gould Schurman Professor of Applied Mathematics at Cornell University.
One of the great things about my job is operating outside my comfort zone, and this article fits that description quite well. As an English-History type, Math was not my thing, a concept I shared with early on with Airriess, who is now a self-described Math Nerd. “I was actually a math-hater until I was 13 and I didn’t think I was good at it,” Airriess recalled. “I thought you had to be fast to be good and I wasn’t fast. I wasn’t paying attention for most of primary school math. I was put into tutoring and they started me back with addition. After four years, I caught up to Calculus in math. That foundation helped me find what I like, not procedures and multiplication, but finding patterns, what numbers mean and exploring questions on my own. Not what other people wanted me to explore. Tutoring sucked and it wasn’t fun. But it did help me build skills. I liked school, writing, languages and science, but I just hated math.”
Airriess, attended High Tech High from Kindergarten through 12th grades, in large part because her mother worked there. She described the school as, “A charter school, where you attend in person. It’s project-based learning, very non-traditional, and most of what we did was working on group projects. We did some pretty good work last year with the California Innocence Project, working with lawyers who represented wrongfully convicted people. Our job was to figure out if the cases were worth the Innocent Project’s time and we had to present cases in front of an attorney. It felt like the real world and we got to look at the system from a different angle, because we were working within it.”
Kyna was born in Vancouver, Canada and moved to San Diego when she was a year old. She holds dual citizenship in the U.S. and Canada, and she will be attending the University of British Columbia in Vancouver this fall, where she will major in General Mathematics.
Which leads us back to the Strogatz Prize. According to the National Museum of Mathematics, which refers to itself in print as ‘MoMath,’ the prize, “Is awarded based on content, creativity, and communication. Projects are accepted and judged in categories, which include video, audio, social media, art, writing, and performance. Among 46 entries were podcasts, articles, school newspaper columns, YouTube videos, websites, social media accounts, and songs, all of which promoted mathematical concepts in new and exciting ways.”
Except Airriess didn’t use any of those forms of media, opting instead to create a nine-page ‘Zine,’ which she defined. “It’s a short, little magazine that came about in the 70’s punk scene. It was a way for people to make flyers and advertisements for concerts, on one page of paper, photocopy it and fold it up into a zine. I found out about zines through my Calculus teacher Chris Nho, who challenged me to go in a different direction. My project incorporated a zine and calculus.”
Incorporating a concept from Mathematician Paul Lockhart’s book “A Mathematician’s Lament,” that states, “Nevertheless, the fact is that there is nothing as dreamy and poetic, as radical, subversive and psychedelic as mathematics,” Airriess crafted her graphically stunning zine to include representations of mathematics supporting Lockhart’s concept. The concept is hard to describe and I had to print a copy and read it twice before I caught on. If you would like to see Kyna’s work, it can be found at https://drive.google.com/file/d/1nYXe40mAM-ANoeI_hd3plnagnIier9CJ/view.
Airriess described how she discovered Lockhart’s book. “My Mom was a teacher and I sat in her classroom before and after school. She taught math and chemistry and was showing the book to her students. I read it before school when I was 11 and thought is was really silly. Comparing a mathematician to an artist and imagining poetic things in your head, I wasn’t convinced. Then I came back to it again in ninth grade and at that point I agreed with everything he said because it hit me in a different way. The way we teach math in school, doesn’t line up with how mathematicians actually do math. I was originally taught math terribly and that’s why people don’t like math.”
In addition to her Calculus Teacher Chris Nho, Kyla discussed the contributions of another teacher of hers at High Tech High. “Sarah Strong was my ninth grade math teacher and she reintroduced me to “A Mathematician’s Lament.” She helped me to fall in love with math instead of just being good at math.”
It’s not surprising that creating an award-winning math project is time consuming. Several components came together to assist Airriess in the creation of her work. “I started with 10 or 12 ideas and this was the one that stuck. I was taking a digital art class, so I had access and free time to really get into that kind of art. It was just one of those things that the zine came out exactly like I pictured it in my head, with the colors and how the elements were laid out. The hardest part was getting the (math) examples and making sure the examples made the point. I started working on it in November 2019 and I submitted it in March 2020, so it was five months from the first brainstorm of ideas to having it done. The original files, one page per file, are on a computer at school. And now that I have graduated, all of our stuff is wiped. I only have it in the file that it’s in now.”
One of the graphic elements in her work was Pascal’s Triangle, which is based on powers of the number 11. The basic problem I had in understanding that concept is 11 to the zero power equals one, which was patiently explained to me by Kyna, thus making the illustration understandable.
Let’s just say it’s been a while since I was in a math class. Another graphic representation was the Sierpinski Triangle, an intriguing diagram where triangles are created and get progressively smaller, while still contained within the shape of the original triangle.
In total there were eight winners of the Strogatz Prize, three of which including Kyna’s project, were in the general field of writing. The other two winning submissions were a magazine and a poetry entry. Airriess said, “This was the first year for the Strogatz Awards and they got way more qualified entries than they expected. But there was so much good stuff, they gave more awards than they planned. There weren’t supposed to be three writing awards, but there were too many good entries they wanted to recognize.” In my opinion, Airriess could just as easily have won a Strogatz Prize in one of the art categories.
I facetiously asked Kyna if she received a lifetime pass to the National Museum of Mathematics in New York City as part of her award. She replied, “No, I don’t think so. I’ve been there and it’s cool. You get to ride a bike with square tires, which was my favorite thing about it. We had a virtual awards ceremony and Dr. Strogatz participated on that, but I haven’t talked to him one-on-one. I knew who he was because I had to read one of his books for class.”
As for the future, Airriess is keeping her options open, but mathematics are definitely part of the equation. “I’m going to take subjects as broad as I can at the University of British Columbia. What is really of interest to me now is number theory and geometry. I have been exposed to a tiny fraction of what makes up mathematics. I don’t want to make any sweeping statements now that might be wrong, when I learn a little more. I want to get a math Ph.D. I might entertain being a teacher, although my Mom advises me against being one, because there is so much work. I see myself doing a lot of different things and I’m leaving the future open.”