Six young Canadian math whizzes are ready to divide, add, subtract, multiply and conquer at a prestigious global competition, but they won’t be using their calculators at the contest. For high school students taking part in the International Mathematical Olympiad, rulers and compasses are allowed in the exam room. Calculators, however, are a no-no.
Canada’s sharp math minds are well aware they’re facing tough challenges ahead beyond mere number-crunching in their quest for a medal at the IMO. “Calculations are usually not a big part of the competition. It really is just pure problem-solving,” said Canadian team leader Adrian Tang, who took home a bronze medal at the IMO in 1998. “Everybody wants to make sure that it’s not a race through who can multiply these numbers quickly. It really is a true test of who has the best problem-solving skills.”
Canada will join more than 100 countries participating in this year’s IMO in Kazakhstan. The 51st annual event begins Saturday in the capital city of Astana. The first contest was held in Romania in 1959 with seven participating countries. It has since expanded to more than 90 countries from five continents. Toronto played host to the event in 1995.
Since Canada first started taking part in 1981, the country has received 17 gold, 40 silver and 68 bronze medals. This year’s Canadian team includes two students from B.C., one from Alberta and three from Ontario ranging from Grade 7 to 12. Robin Cheng, Hunter Spink and Chen Sun, who were silver medallists at the 2009 IMO in Bremen, Germany, are back on the Canadian squad, alongside team members Alex Song, Yuqi Zhu and Jonathan Zung.
Canada’s team is attending training camp at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ont., in the leadup to this year’s contest, where they’ll take mock tests similar to the complex questions they’ll tackle during the IMO.
The contest takes place over two days, July 7 and 8. On each contest day, students are provided with three problems that they are given four hours and 30 minutes to complete. According to information by Naoki Sato, a former Canadian IMO team member, that is posted on the Canadian Mathematical Society’s website, subjects are restricted to those from the high school curriculum, including algebra, geometry, number theory, inequalities and combinatorics and probability.
The host country receives up to six problem proposals from other countries. They then have to make a shortlist of about 30 questions. An international jury comprising a chief delegate or leader from each participating country together with the chairman named by the host country selects the final problems. “It takes a lot of insight and analytical skills for anybody to be able to solve these problems,” said Tang, a PhD candidate at the University of Calgary in mathematics. “I’ve been solving math competition problems for 12 years and I still encounter problems I cannot solve.”
Tang said grading is done on a point system, and the goal is to solve as many problems as possible. Even if they can’t, participants should try to make as much progress as possible. “For anybody to even make partial progress on one of the problems is an astounding achievement because it takes a lot of creativity, it takes a lot of talent to really understand what the problem is asking,” he said.
This year’s contest will be the swan song for Chen Sun. The 17-year-old from London, Ont., attended his first IMO in Madrid in 2008 and last year’s event in Germany. Sun has been immersed in the subject and competitions for years. He first attended the local “Math Challenge @ Western” program in the fourth grade. Sun said what distinguishes math competitions is the emphasis on problem solving and creativity and truly trying to figure out something that, at first glance, even the world’s best math students may not have any idea how to solve.
While some may immediately conjure images of calculations when their thoughts turn to the subject, Sun sees math and the contests as representative of much more. “For people who are fortunate to have experienced that in high school and maybe in university, they see this other side of math, this other side that a lot of people never got a chance to see, and it really is pretty cool,” he said. “There is really some nice stuff in it. It’s like an art form, almost.”
Tang said he was confident that Canada will do well. “They’re a great team with a lot of talent and it’s probably one of the best teams we’ve had,” he said. “I expect great things from the team, but at the same time, I also hope that they’ll have a lot of fun in Kazakhstan, meet people, learn about the culture — just whatever is available there.”
The Canadian Press