China's all-female Math Olympiad gets underway in Wuhan on August 11th, and for the first time since the contest began in 2002, a team from the United States will be among the international competitors.
The eight high school girls on the U.S. team, representing eastern- and western-region schools, were chosen from among the top competitors at the most recent USA Mathematical Olympiad. Three coaches, also with math Olympiad experience, will be traveling with them and helping them with their training.
To prepare for the competition, in which participants must solve complex mathematical problems, the girls have been spending the last three weeks in Dallas, Texas, at the Awesome Math summer program, where they have been learning essential problem-solving skills. They spend most of their time either working together or doing "normal" things, like playing card games, running, and juggling.
Jenny Iglesias is a math olympian from the East team, and says that all the time they spend together makes them very comfortable with each other. "We don't mind asking each other stupid questions like what's the cosine of zero," she says. Sometimes this closeness is distracting and they might start "goofing off" towards the end of their study sessions.
Jenny and the girls are looking forward to many things about the China Girls Math Olympiad. "I get to hang out with seven other girls who are just as good and probably better than me in math," says the Olympian, "I get to go out of the country, I get to compete internationally, it's all very exciting."
Melanie Wood, one of the coaches for the U.S. team, says that after the girls get to Wuhan, the experience will be intense, and difficult. Math competitions, explains the coach, generally go on for the course of two days. Each day, students are given three problems to work on and about an hour and a half to solve each problem.
"Each of these problems is very difficult compared to what kinds of problems high school students might take in math classes", says Wood. "And while these are the best students from around the world, we don't expect them necessarily to be able to solve all of them."
Wood also says that a lot of the work happens after the math challenges, and students and coaches discuss how they made progress towards solving the problems. After a few days, all the answers to the problems are graded and the medalists are announced. Performances, says the coach, are evaluated individually, much like a team of runners in the Olympics.
Mathematics competitions have been around for a long time. The most famous and prestigious one, the International Mathematical Olympiad, began in 1959 in Romania, and is now attended annually by teenagers from over 90 countries.
For the most part, these competitions have been male-dominated, but females are increasingly turning up. One of the eight girls on the U.S. team at the China Olympiad, Sherry Gong, was a contestant in the International Math Olympiad held in Hanoi, Vietnam, a few weeks ago. She placed eighth among more than 500 contestants.
Melanie Wood, a mathematics graduate student at Princeton University, was the first, and, until 2004, the only American woman to participate in the International Mathematical Olympiad. She says that in her case, being the only woman in the competition made the whole experience even more difficult.
At the training camp for the Olympiad, for example, she was the only woman out of 30 students. "There was a lot of stress based on the fact that I was a woman and somehow representing all women in everything that I did," says Wood. "There was a lot of difficulty added to just the mathematical difficulties which were already great."
This inspired Wood and Exeter Academy's Zuming Feng to approach the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute in Berkeley, California, with a proposal to support sending a team of American girls to China's girls-only Math Olympiad. Both of the coaches feel that in a situation like the all-girls Olympiad, the girls can focus on the mathematical difficulties with no pressures coming from gender issues.
Institute director David Eisenbud believes the experience of competing in a girls-only math Olympiad will help to keep these young women interested in mathematics, and encourage some to pursue careers in the field. He says that exposing the girls to other people who enjoy math, and developing a social context for doing mathematics has proved to be very effective.
"Those are things which we've found have been very influential in keeping people happy and in the field," says Eisenbud. He adds that it can prevent them from deciding later in life that mathematics is "'not for me after all', and dropping out."
That's a belief shared by the coach for the U.S. team in China, Melanie Wood, who believes that the image of mathematics is in trouble when it comes to teenage girls. "Mathematics just doesn't appear to girls to be that kind of thing that they imagine themselves doing", says the coach.
Wood believes she is helping create role models for other girls by taking this team of talented young women to the China Olympiad. "This Olympiad will just help promote the image of mathematics as something that women and young women can do."
For more information on the Math Olympiad and the U.S. team competing in Wuhan, visit the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute's Website, where you will find a listing of trip sponsors and a travel diary, with photos and messages from the girls and their coaches.