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Does Society need IMO Medalists? A student's view...

I published this blog orginally on MAA’s in July-2019.

A paper written by Dr. Man Keung Siu, a professor of math at the University of Hong Kong, titled “Does Society need IMO medalists?” poses an important question: how do math competitions fit in with the field of math at large? He starts by describing the International Mathematical Olympiad (IMO), including his experience with the competition, and mentions names of IMO winners that have gone to become famous mathematicians. He also ponders the relevance of the IMO winners to society and considers specifically the impact of the IMO winners on the field of math.

The 2018 US team at the International Mathematical Olympiad.

Winners of the IMO are highly trained in math competitions. As a high school student who competed in math competitions, I read Dr. Siu’s paper with interest and believe he asks an important question. Dr. Siu discusses the training and skill sets gained through preparation for the competitions. He states that training for math competitions allows students to acquire logical thinking, confidence, and “academic sincerity”.

However, he also notes that some of the drawbacks of this type of training include the ways competition problems differ from mathematical research, the potential for overtraining, and the possibility that competitive spirit is sometimes different from passion for the subject.

Personally, I believe that the points Dr. Siu brought up are fair, but based on my own experience and observations of other competitors, it seems that in order to do well in math competitions a genuine passion and drive for the subject is necessary to keep one motivated.

I agree with the point in Dr. Sui’s paper from Dr. Petar Kenderov, a math professor at the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, who points out that math competitions disfavor students who work “slower”, as most competitions involve time pressure. Time restrictions can inhibit a student’s performance.

Kenderov also says that math competitions miss out on a fundamental aspect of math, which is posing questions and problems. Dr. Siu goes on to say something similar by mentioning that research isn’t just about the answer, but exploring a concept to the full depth.

One interesting aspect of the article is that Dr. Siu gives three examples of math problems that are solved in two different ways, to generalize that there are two fundamental methods of solving math problems. One method is the standard, longer approach of systematically solving the problem, which is typically taught in school and classroom settings, and the other is a method of finding clever ways to solve the problem in a nonconventional way, which he believes is the methodology taught in math competitions.

He states that both are crucial to the subject of math, but notes that schools don’t typically teach students math using math competition problems, which narrows most students’ horizons into thinking of math in one way. He claims that for a deeper understanding of the subject of math, all aspects should be explored. I strongly agree with Dr. Siu’s statement as the education system traditionally focuses on math solely in a way that is procedural, and it is crucial for students to see math in all facets.

To respond to Dr. Siu’s point that math competitions lack some aspects fundamental to mathematical research, like posing unique questions. However, it’s nearly impossible for tests to include all the components that provide students with a sufficient background in research. Although math competitions don’t comprehensively provide students background needed for a research project, math competitions do allow students  to experience creativity in math that most wouldn’t get exposure to otherwise. That creativity is a crucial component for mathematical research.

At the end of the paper, he shifts the focus to say that “society needs friends of mathematics.” By saying this, he denotes that it is essential to have people in the world who don’t necessarily pursue math but understand the significance of mathematics to the world at large. He claims that there does not exist a substantial amount of people that not only support the field, but also comprehend the value of mathematics. I think Dr. Siu makes a phenomenal point at the end, as lack of support undermines the value of making mathematical breakthroughs because  people aren’t cognizant of math as a field that impacts society.


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