January 15, 1850 - February 10, 1891

Sonya Kovalevsky (known also as Sofia Kovalevskaya) was the middle child of well-educated members of the Russian nobility. She was educated by tutors and governesses and became attracted to mathematics at a very young age. It was under the family tutor that Sonya undertook her first proper study of mathematics and she says that it was as his pupil that

I began to feel an attraction for my mathematics so intense that I started to neglect my other studies.

In 1869, as a young married woman, Sonya traveled to Heidelberg to study mathematics and the natural sciences, only to discover that women could not matriculate at the university. Eventually she persuaded the university authorities to allow her to attend lectures unofficially, provided that she obtain the permission of each of her lecturers. Sonya studied there successfully for three semesters attracting the attention of her teachers with her uncommon mathematical ability.

In 1871 Kovalevsky moved to Berlin to expand her studies but was refused permission to attend courses at the university. However, this turned out to be in her favor as the brilliant German mathematician Karl Weierstrass agreed to tutor her privately. By the spring of 1874, Kovalevsky had completed three papers each of which Weierstrass deemed worthy of a doctorate. In 1874 Kovalevsky was granted her doctorate, summa cum laude, from G`ttingen University. Despite this doctorate and letters of recommendation from Weierstrass, Kovalevsky was unable to obtain a university academic position. Her rejections resulted in a six-year period during which time she undertook no research.

From 1880 on, Kovalevsky increasingly returned to her study of mathematics and in 1884, following the suicide of her husband, she was able to secure a university position in Stockholm. In 1889 Kovalevsky became only the third woman to hold a chair at a European university. She had found her place in Sweden.

At the University of Stockholm, Kovalevskyıs extraordinary mathematical talent and literary gifts were revealed with a special brilliance. She lectured with great success on selected mathematical topics for several years. While in Sweden she created her principal mathematical work, " On the Rotation of a Solid Body about a Fixed Point," which became a sensation and was awarded the Prix Borodin of the French Academy of Sciences in 1889.

In early 1891, at the height of her mathematical powers and reputation, Kovalevsky died of influenza complicated by pneumonia.


On April 7, 2000

Montgomery College hosted Sonya Kovalevsky Day. About 60 middle school girls and their teachers attended the event. Studies have shown that when girls are in elementary school, they do as well in math and science as their male counterparts. But somewhere around the ages of thirteen or fourteen, their math and science scores decrease dramatically. As a result, not as many women join the ranks of mathematicians or scientists. Sonya Kovalevsky Day is sponsored to encourage young girls to pursue careers in Math and Science.

The events were exciting! After viewing a film of a bridge collapsing, all because of a few mathematical miscalculations, the girls were asked to construct bridges with only one piece of 8" x 11" paper and one foot of masking tape. To judge the strength of the bridge, students were asked to put pennies on the bridge span. Unbelievably, the winners' bridge was able to withstand the weight of 462 pennies!

If you would like to see some pictures of the girls building bridges, click on the icons below.

Sonya Kovalevsky Day Images Sonya Kovalevsky Day Images
Sonya Kovalevsky Day Images
Sonya Kovalevsky Day Images

A panel consisting of professionals in the math and science fields and Montgomery College students who were majoring in programs related to math and science was held during the morning session. The panelists answered questions about how they became interested in the subject of math or science, and the types of activities they are doing now that require math skills.

The middle school teachers participated in several workshops related to teaching in the math and sciences. The afternoon session included games that helped the students use their math skills. Sonya Kovalevsky Day is an annual event that is usually held in April. For more information about how you can become involved in the maths and sciences, call the College Tech Prep Coordinator, Lisa Carvallo.

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