GUANAJUATO, Mexico—Emanuel Perez, a junior in high school and the son of two Mexican immigrants, has not always found it easy to position himself in the world of higher mathematics. He said that growing up in the Belmont-Cragin neighborhood of Chicago, some of his Latino peers mocked, or at least questioned, his love of math. Although he is on a math team at the Whitney M. Young Magnet School, he is the only minority student on the team. “You try to fit into both worlds, and you don’t fit into either,” Perez said.
Yet when Perez watches professor Eduardo Dueñez explaining solutions to extremely complex math problems, he sees a passion like his own evolved into consummate expertise and a professional career. Most importantly, he sees his own way to a fascinating future.
“It’s great to have someone to look up to,” Perez said. “I could imagine doing what Eduardo is doing.”
Perez met Dueñez, an associate professor of mathematics at the University of Texas at San Antonio, in a AAAS program designed specifically for mathematically advanced students who are members of underrepresented minorities. As part of that program, Perez and three other U.S. students traveled to the Olimpiada Mexicana de Matemáticas (OMM), held 11-16 November in Guanajuato, after having participated in ten days of intensive training in a larger group of students in Washington, D.C., this past summer.
Also chosen to travel to Mexico were Sohail Farhangi, a senior at Thomas Jefferson High School of Science and Technology in Alexandria, Virginia.; Varun Mohan, a junior at The Harker School in San Jose, California; and David Vargas, a senior at Herricks High School in New Hyde Park, New York. As unofficial participants in the OMM, which determines the selection of Mexican students who will go to the International Mathematical Olympiad, the U.S. students took two 4½-hour tests, solving highly advanced math problems alongside 196 officially competing Mexican students. Unlike in the USA Mathematical Olympiad, where contestants take the competition exams at participating schools throughout the United States, Mexican students who compete in their national contest come together from all over the country, six from each of Mexico’s 31 states and the federal district of Mexico City. While the trip broadened the four U.S. students’ math-competition skills and personal experience, it also facilitated new international relationships in the math and science community.
Florence Fasanelli and Mark Saul, co-directors of the AAAS program, see the initiative as a way to bring together exceptionally talented students who might otherwise be overlooked or isolated—and to increase the participation of underrepresented minorities in higher mathematics. Fasanelli said these students are “not often celebrated for their talent and ability, but rather are left out and feel quite alone.”
The training program was paid for with a $125,000 grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, the University of the District of Columbia provided free classrooms and housing to 20 students during the training, and AAAS offered in-kind staff support. Another part of the program took place in September, when four other participants traveled to Tunisia to compete in the Pan-African Mathematics Olympiad.
Saul, who is also the head of The Center for Mathematical Talent at New York University’s Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences, recruited a top-quality team of minority mathematicians such as Dueñez to be trainers—and role models—for the participating students.
Interestingly, what Dueñez is passing on to the program participants is precisely what he learned and emulated growing up in Guadalajara, Mexico. University math professors there coached him and a few friends when they were teenagers who would show up outside of the professors’ classrooms with complex math problems.
“They would help us just because they wanted to,” Dueñez said. “It boils down to the fact that these teachers and faculty wanted to do right by us.”
A contestant in two OMMs and on the team of six Mexicans who went to the International Mathematical Olympiad in 1990, Dueñez helped to train the U.S. students in Washington, D.C., and traveled to Guanajuato this fall as team leader for Perez, Farhangi, Mohan, and Vargas. His participation has been essentially pro bono, involving only a small honorarium. He characterizes his participation as “passing the baton” to another generation of math scholars.
Passing the baton means building the students’ skills, but it also means creating a community for the math champions, who might not be stimulated by their classes, or connect with their classmates, at school.
When the AAAS program participants get together, said program co-director Saul, “they motivate each other. They want to pick each other’s brains. Like athletes, they want to play.”
Farhangi, who came to the AAAS program after seeing a flyer about it at school, said he has really enjoyed doing math with the other talented students. “It’s nice to be with them in person, and the training was all day, which was great. When I got home after the ten days, I was much more pumped to do math.”
He and the three other students who traveled to Mexico got together with Dueñez the day after they arrived in Guanajuato to do some math problems. Seeming relaxed but energetic as they settled into one of the hotel rooms that had been rented for them, they worked individually and collaboratively, showing each other their notebooks and sparring over approaches in a hybrid of languages spoken in adolescence and math. “Dude, I’m generating primes,” Mohan said to Farhangi, referring to one of their problems. “What are you doing?” With new problems in front of them, they were locked on, and not one issue unrelated to math was discussed during a three-hour session.
“This is how it goes,” Dueñez said, referring to the students’ focus. “Three hours is just the start.”
At the OMM proceedings, the four program participants got an extended opportunity to interact with their Mexican math peers. The atmosphere at this year’s Guanajuato event felt a bit like a summer camp, complete with sightseeing to Alhóndiga de Granaditas, which served as a fortress during Mexico’s War of Independence and is now a museum, and to an enormous statue high above Guanajuato of a heroic figure named El Pípila, who is said to have helped the revolutionaries overcome the royalists. Living up to the image of summer camp, the event included a talent night, at which one group of math scholars showed they were not above taking the stage to re-create the insane dancing made famous by YouTube sensation “Gangnam Style.”
“This event gives these students a security in the things they do, a confidence in themselves,” said José Antonio Gómez, OMM director and professor at the Universidad Autónoma de México. “They come to know themselves and learn that they can do things that they didn’t know they could do.”
“We have lots of kids who are very introverted, asocial,” said Ignacio Barradas, of the Centro de Investigación en Matemáticas in Guanajuato and a longtime organizer for OMM. “When they come here, they just bloom. The kids transform because they have the social permission to transform.”
Although they were not competing officially in the OMM, the four U.S. students all earned scores that would have qualified them for medals: silver for Mohan and Vargas, and bronze for Farhangi and Perez. Having been able to come to Mexico partly because of their ability to write proofs in Spanish, all four U.S. found ways to connect with the Mexican students, and two said they will stay in touch with new Mexican friends on Facebook.
Vargas, whose family comes from the Dominican Republic, called the week of activities surrounding the competition “really positive. It gives it more of a cooperative feeling, rather than a competitive one. It’s like we’re all working together.”
“The Mexican kids have been cooler than I thought. They’re more social,” Vargas said.
At one of the OMM activities, the U.S. students joined their Mexican peers in the next chapter of passing the baton—visiting grade schools in the Guanajuato area with the hopes of getting younger kids turned on to math.
Despite whatever struggles Perez has experienced trying to find his community, he smiled broadly as he watched an exhibit in which the teenaged OMM contestants used soap bubbles to help primary school kids explore shapes and planes at a remote school in Llanos de Santana, which is in the hills outside of Guanajuato.
“I feel more at home here than in the United States,” he said. “It makes me feel integrated into a community that I didn’t even know existed.”
Learn more about the AAAS Mathematical Olympiad Training Program at their Facebook page.
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