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Penrhos’ Hidden Figures – taking Maths to a whole new dimension


26 March 2021

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Penrhos College



There is arguably a continuing societal perception that the subject of Mathematics remains difficult and unpopular in the learning environment. The culture of Maths in schools can be one dimensional, but it doesn’t have to be – at Penrhos, we challenge the norm by asking whether being good at Maths always means getting excellent results? Rather, we consider the helping of girls to discover a joy and curiosity in one of the most fascinating subjects to be somewhat more important…

Unearthing girls’ fascination for Maths is a longstanding passion for Mathematics teacher, Peter Chandler, who also founded Penrhos’ unique maths extension program, Maths Mentor, in 2008. Peter created the program to provide further guidance and mentorship to a Year 8 student, Anna Surla, who was independently studying calculus at home with the encouragement of her mother. In helping Anna, Peter discovered there were more girls who also had the motivation and interest to want to investigate the complexities of Maths beyond the classroom, and he drew his inspiration for the program from them. Anna Surla went on to become one of the top Maths students in the state and she is now a medical doctor in Queensland. Now in its 13th year, Maths Mentor continues to attract international recognition for both students and the College, as well as to enjoy consistently increasing participation. As the only one of its kind in Australia, Maths Mentor typically attracts up to 75 girls per year into the program and is designed to support the development of problem-solving and critical-thinking skills in line with the College’s emphasis on 21st century learning. The program offers an opportunity for students to be engaged, challenged and mentored by their peers, former students and teachers – notably, 90 percent of students who participate in the program go on to further studies in STEM-related areas after they finish school.

“Extending the program in 2020 to Junior School students underpins our commitment to nurturing girls’ interest and attitude toward Maths from the outset. Fascination and capability are already apparent in our Junior School students, and our mentoring program sets out to inspire these girls from the youngest age,” says Peter. Over recent years, growing student confidence and fluency in Maths has resulted in Penrhos’ placement in a number of highly regarded competitions. Of particular note last year was the 2020 World Mathematics Team Championships – our Junior School competed for the first time and placed in the top 30, with Year 6 student Charlotte Sceresini ranking 20th in the world and winning a gold medal; meanwhile, our Secondary School students took eight bronze medals, the highest result for Penrhos over the last 6 years.
Penrhos was also one of the top performing schools in Mathematics Specialist in 2020, the highest ATAR level course in Maths, and our Year 12 students’ course scores were combined to place Penrhos in the top 15 per cent of all students in the state.

As both a high performing ATAR and VET pathway school, Penrhos endeavours to consistently demonstrate the connection between classroom learning and its application in the world beyond school. When it comes to Mathematics, we encourage our girls to enter competitions and embrace any opportunities to interact with students from other schools, states and countries for the widest possible experience. The National Mathematics Summer School is always a great opportunity – the criteria include a demonstration of the student’s commitment, enthusiasm and love for Maths. Current Year 12 Maths Mentor Captains, Aleta Houden and Nahyun Kim, were two of only nine students selected from Western Australia to take part in this year’s national two-week summer program; they were able to successfully draw on their strong record of contribution to Maths through mentoring, coaching and commitment to furthering their own learning in support of their applications.

At Penrhos, our girls are encouraged to identify their individual strengths and areas of interest as they consider future career paths, without regard for the gender stereotyping which may remain attached to certain options. We encourage our students to view the continuation of Maths into careers including data science, maths modelling, actuarial science, engineering, software design, astronomy, chemistry and epidemiology. It is estimated that 75% of jobs in our fastest-growing industries will very soon require skills in STEM and, while both males and females benefit from STEM knowledge and skills, females are significantly under-represented in STEM studies and careers across the globe. To secure Australia’s economy for the future, the nurture of STEM-based education – in particular, Mathematics for young women – is vital. Our Maths teachers and returning alumni mentors help coach those students intending to go on to study for STEM-related university degrees and to offer insight into the range of possibilities that can potentially present. “One of our former students, majoring in Mathematics, was offered a job even before she graduated university,” says Peter Chandler, “Gillian Rackham (2016) completed her Industrial and Applied Mathematics degree at the end of 2020 and is now pursuing a career in optimisation, commencing as a consultant at Mainsheet Capital.”

Penrhos has worked hard to create a thriving culture in which girls are encouraged to embrace Mathematics, both for the love of the subject in its own right and as an academic study and career pathway. The College’s approach is as much about providing a pathway that is challenging and achievable, as it is about reshaping perceptions of Maths as a pursuit to be undertaken in fascination and wonder.
“Maths Mentor at Penrhos is quite possibly the best thing that ever happened to me,” says former Maths Mentor program participant, Rebecca Walmsley (2016). “In Year 7, I had no interest in STEM – especially in Maths. I soon realised, after being involved in the program, that the STEM field was where I wanted to be. I was surrounded by positive like-minded people in a fun and constructive environment. I never thought I would go on to study Engineering, majoring in Electronics and Telecommunications – I truly was inspired through the Maths Mentor program!”
Internally, the Penrhos story of Maths and Maths Mentor has been well and truly established and celebrated for many years – but, for the wider community, its critical importance and relevance is only just beginning to really emerge.

In 2020, I joined Penrhos as the Head of Mathematics after having previously been the Head of Mathematics at Rossmoyne SHS. I was pleasantly surprised to find a team of incredibly dedicated and passionate teachers that formed the Mathematics department. At Penrhos, our high-quality teaching and learning program is complemented by after-school help and in-classroom support from our learning enhancement team. As a result, the girls are very well catered for, regardless of their ability level in Mathematics. Students are encouraged to strive for their personal best and to constantly challenge themselves in the confidence that they are in a very safe and supportive environment, where it is always okay to make mistakes and to fail smart.
I have always believed that students respond to challenge most successfully if they are surrounded by positive and passionate peers, mentors and teachers. This sentiment is at the very core of Mathematics at Penrhos and I am proud that this College is perfectly placed to be a destination school for Mathematics students of all abilities – today, and well into the future.

Written by Head of Department – Mathematics, Tim Birrell