The first time George Friedlander participated in a national mathematics competition, he wasn’t quite up to the challenge. “I got destroyed,” he admits now, “and I realized I had a lot to learn.”
But the Bronx High School of Science junior and two other American students performed at top levels last month at the Pan-African Mathematics Olympiad in Tunisia. The team of Friedlander, Joseph Feffer, Gabriel Grell, and Rachit Singh had the third highest score among the nine teams competing.
Although the Americans were unofficial participants at the Olympiad, held 8-16 September in Tunis, the students’ work earned them medal-level honors at the event. Individually, Singh was recognized at the gold medal level, tying for second place among the 45 contestants, Friedlander at the silver level, and Feffer at the bronze level.
Outstanding mathematics students at the middle and high school levels from countries throughout Africa may participate in the annual Olympiad, which was first held in 1987 in Rabat, Morocco. This year, 59 students from Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, Egypt, Gambia, Nigeria, South Africa, Tanzania, Tunisia, and the United States competed at the event.
[Video produced by Carla Schaffer]
The U.S. “mathletes” were chosen for the Olympiad team after working their way through an intensive 10-day training program in Washington, D.C., developed by AAAS. The training is a new initiative that aims to increase underrepresented minority participation in higher mathematics.
The training program was supported by a $125,000 grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. The University of the District of Columbia donated classrooms and housing, and in-kind staff support came from AAAS.
The allure of possibly competing in an international mathematics Olympiad helped to raise the profile of the new training program and attracted many strong applications. Florence Fasanelli, the AAAS mathematician in residence who coordinates the program, said there were about 70 applicants for the 20 slots.
“Each of the students got a strong recommendation from either their math teacher or math team coach. We took those very seriously,” she said. “We wanted several students who were exceedingly experienced, so they could pass on the flavor of Olympiads to all the kids. And we wanted very young students so that we could groom them to be leaders in future years.”
Fasanelli said it was important for students to have role models they could identify with, particularly black and Latino students who often are alone in advanced mathematics classes. Program Co-Director Mark Saul, head of The Center for Mathematical Talent (CMT) at the Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences at New York University, drew upon his extensive experience with gifted students and mathematics competitions to recruit a stellar team of minority mathematicians as trainers.
These included William Christian, an applied mathematician at the U.S. Department of Defense, and Marcus Neal, a high school teacher in South Carolina with years of Olympiad experience, who both traveled with the team to Tunisia. Backing them up in Washington were Eduardo Dueñez, a professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio, and Jonathan Montaño from Bogotá, Colombia, a Ph.D. candidate at Purdue University.
“At my math club at school, I am the only Hispanic so this was definitely an opportunity to meet other students who shared a similar culture and who had the same appreciation for math,” said Emanuel Perez, a junior at Whitney M. Young Magnet High School in Chicago, Illinois, who took part in the training.
“It was an eye-opening experience seeing instructors who had similar math backgrounds as me, as perhaps I could see myself doing that in a few years,” Perez said. He also spoke about the importance of educational opportunities with a legislative assistant to Senator Richard Durbin (D-Illinois) while in Washington.
In Fasanelli’s view, Perez’ sense of isolation is common. “It is very hard to get funding for programs for talented students, particularly among underrepresented minority groups,” she explained. “This means they are left out on two levels: They are left out in general, because the schools are not geared for them. And secondly, they don’t have the network of [mathematical] peers and competitions to sharpen their skills.”
The energy was bouncing off the classroom walls at the early August training as the students began to sharpen those skills with complex problems of advanced mathematics—from number theory to geometry to combinatorics.
The training reviewed high school-level math, Saul said, “but the nice thing about this kind of math is that you can pose very complicated and interesting problems requiring very little background.”
The training instructors and the judges at the Olympiad, he added, “were more interested in how you use what you know, and how you communicate it. There is a lot of creativity in the process.”
Twin themes that consistently emerged in personal stories told by the young students at the summer training: their rapture with higher mathematics and their sense of isolation from others who share that passion. Placement in more advanced mathematics classes can impart the mechanics of the subject, but few among even their older peers in the classroom share the passion of a true mathlete.
“Way back in second grade, I found math—which was akin to doing your one plus one addition tables—much too easy,” said Central Lee Community Schools student Paolo Adajar. “So me and my parents got permission that I could go into fifth grade math, so that’s where I started.”
His enthusiasm for math is apparent in the classroom, where he often was among the first volunteering to go to the board to work out problems. What gets him so excited about math? “It’s just the joy when you solve something that you didn’t know what to do. Learning new things; it’s the best part of math.”
Adajar thinks it might lead him from his small hometown of Donnellson, Iowa to a career with NASA or in aerospace engineering.
Briana Franklin, now a senior at North Atlanta High School, has taken advanced math classes since sixth grade. She said the experience of being in the program and “immersed with people who are so excellent at it, is definitely going to give me food for thought for the coming years.”
The youngest member of the team, 12-year-old Joseph Feffer, participated in the Washington summer program with twin sister Jacqueline. The pair lives in central Pennsylvania where they are partially home schooled but take mathematics classes in the public school system in State College.
Jacqueline acknowledged her brother is more advanced, so he helps her sometimes in understanding the content. She wants to be a computer programmer while Joseph is aiming for a career in theoretical mathematics.
“I didn’t enjoy doing math until probably the beginning of ninth grade, when I started doing problems like this, which are a lot more fun than the math test problems,” said Singh, who is a high school junior at Pullman High School in Washington, near the Idaho border.
He saw the flyer advertising the program online “and thought it was really cool, so I applied.” The big draw was just to come and learn more about math, and be among peers who share his passion.
“I don’t have to explain things like the hairy ball theorem and that is really enjoyable because you can make a lot of inside jokes, and stuff like that,” Singh explains. “And also, a lot of us have very similar interests so we get along very well. We’ll stay in touch.”
Friedlander suggested that those relationships also would help the students to a deeper understanding of mathematics as a career.
“Especially when you get into higher math, when you get past high school, you have to be more mature about what it means to be a mathematician,” he said. “Being collaborative is a really important part of solving problems.”
Read more about the U.S. team’s experience in Tunisia at their Facebook page.
See the competition results for contestants from the nine countries participating in the Pan African Mathematics Olympiad.