This year's math Olympiad 'brain-wrecking '

By Debbie Kelley Published: April 30, 2013 | 6:35 pm 0

No matter who you ask about this year's Colorado Mathematical Olympiad, everyone agrees: It was hard.

'Much harder than last year's, ' said Pranit Nanda, a seventh-grader from Aurora Quest K-8, near Denver, who won second honorable mention in the 2012 Olympiad. 'It was a lot of visual thinking, rather than just using numbers to find the answers. '

'Brain-wrecking ' is how Varun Roy, a sixth-grader from Mountain Ridge Middle School in Colorado Springs described the challenge, held April 26 at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs.

'Those were the five hardest questions I've ever seen, ' he said.

'It was very long and confusing, ' piped in North Middle School student Regan Ogilvie. 'I answered all of them but just guessed at one. '

Now in its 30th year, the competition gives participants up to four hours to solve five essay-style questions. This year, 255 middle- and high-school students from around the state entered.

Winners will be announced and receive medals at a public ceremony at UCCS on Friday. To commemorate the 30th anniversary, the event also will feature an Olympiad documentary with the late mathematical genius Paul Erdos and a roundtable discussion with former winners and other math whizzes.

The complexity of this year's problems isn't surprising, said David Hunter, professor and head of the department of statistics at Pennsylvania State University.

'The problems are always pretty much the same: easy to explain, yet moderately to very difficult to solve, ' said Hunter, the 1986-1988 Olympiad champion and 1988 Palmer High School valedictorian. 'The part many people don't understand is that there is no such thing as 'the answer' to an Olympiad problem. A solution is an explanation of why such-and-such must be true, and, often, there is more than one way to explain it. '

A panel of judges found that out, as they listened for hours to Olympiad founder Alexander Soifer review the numerous ways in which the problems could be solved.

'The problems are in the form of stories and because they are the same for sixth through 12th-graders, they don't require much knowledge, but rather talent, creativity and original thinking, ' said Soifer, a UCCS professor who teaches math, art history and European cinema. 'In the Olympiad of 2001, for example, an eighth-grader won first prize. '

The Olympiad isn't like other math contests for kids. There's no reward for speed or regurgitating memorized math facts.

'Somehow nervousness was less of a factor than with other tests, ' Hunter said. 'You felt that you really had time to sit and think, and that you wouldn't be penalized for day dreaming a little -which in fact often led to interesting solution ideas. '

Matt Kahle, who graduated in the bottom 8 percent of his class at Air Academy High School, excelled at the Olympiad. He took first place in 1990 and 1991, and today holds a Ph.D. in mathematics from the University of Washington and is an assistant professor of mathematics at Ohio State University.

He's also been an Olympiad judge for the past decade.

'The Olympiad helped me grow as a problem-solver and helped me learn to write more clearly, ' he said. 'It would be hard to overestimate the impact the Olympiad has had on bright young minds in Colorado for the past 30 years. '

Soifer created the Olympiad based on the USSR National Mathematical Olympiad, in which he competed and then served on the committee.

Mark Heim, a three-time Olympiad champion from 2003 to 2005, judged entries for the first time this year to 'experience the Olympiad from the opposite point of view. ' Instead of focusing on how he tackled tough problems as a contestant, Heim as a judge could see the variety of approaches students use and evulate their merit and accuracy.

'I appreciate the Olympiad for its praise and encouragement of original thinkers to a wide audience - something not often done beneath the college level, ' said Heim, now a senior at Colorado State University.

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