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Mathletes Prepare for the International Math Olympiad

  • Paul Sisco

When studies uncovered a lack-luster interest in mathmatics and science among young Americans, educators, volunteers, and corporate sponsors joined together to do something about it.

The young people here are tomorrow's chemists, engineers, and professors. Racially, ethnically, culturally as diverse as the nation they call home, these young Americans have already distinguished themselves as exceptionally creative and accomplished problem solvers. Many will make significant contributions to the high tech corporate, government, and research communities of the 21st century. Most are preteens, and each has an exceptional interest and talent for mathematics.

The "mathletes," as they're sometimes called, are competing today in a statewide tournament at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. The best will go on to a nationwide competition, and, from there, with continued success, just maybe, represent their nation at the annual International Math Olympiad.

"One kid emerges from this, of the half million kids who start out at this level,” said Steve Olsen who coaches a team which is competing for the very first time.

The very best mathletes move on to much tougher competitions.

“The kids who are the best in the country in the middle school level are already training to be mathletes in high school and they are the ones that will go on to represent the United States internationally," says Mr. Olsen.

In his book, "Count Down," Olsen followed six young mathematicians to the annual international olympiad, a path that began at a math meet just like the one in Baltimore.

"First of all there's the sprint round with 30 problems that they have 40 minutes to do," says Mr. Olsen.

Anxious parents occupy themselves, while their offspring battle with computations and formulas, way beyond their comprehension.

"Then the target round -- where they get three sets of two problems. They have eight minutes, I believe for each set of problems," says Mr. Olsen.

Between rounds there's a dash to answer sheets posted outside the classroom arena.

"Then there's the team round where the four person teams work to try and solve ten problems in 20 minutes, and then the top 16 kids on the individual round then compete in the countdown round," says Mr. Olsen.

Sneha Kannan was in her first competition. "I think I did pretty well, but I didn't do as well as I'd have liked too,' she said. "We have math meets every Thursday -- practices, in the county, and every month we have a Saturday practice which we go through a whole bunch of competition.'

"The countdown round is head to head competition, one person against the other person, sort of a "Jeopardy" format where the problems are flashed on the screen, and the first person to buzz in with the answer, wins,” said Mr. Olsen.

"It was a little easier than I expected it to be," said Ms. Sneha who added she thought it was fun.

Not every one fares so well, but all leave better for having accepted the Mathcounts challenge. More than a half a million children are participating in these math programs annually. The Mathcounts Foundation, established to encourage young people with an aptitude and interest in mathematics is, judging from the numbers, succeeding in its mission.