The U.S. students each earned individual gold medals—including Allen Liu of Penfield, New York, and Yuan Yao of Exeter, New Hampshire, who posted perfect scores. But they also consider this very much a team sport.
“Being around a lot of like-minded people really helps you,” Ashwin Sah, who will be a senior this year at Jesuit High School in Portland, Oregon, told me. “Some people have different ideas, and it’s good to see how they solve problems from their point of view, as well. Even though the day of the actual test you’re working individually, all of the things you learn from the other members of your team will be put to very good use.”
By developing their individual skills through teamwork and practice, the students who have succeeded at the math Olympiad have discovered that math can, indeed, be thrilling. What can be discouraging is the response voiced by some who attribute the competitors’ success solely to their race or heritage.
Diminishing the students’ achievements by suggesting they are somehow “less American” because of their skin colors or “foreign” last names—both popular themes in the comments sections on stories about these kinds of victories—is senseless, says author Peg Tyre (who wrote about a U.S. “Math Revolution” earlier this year for The Atlantic). While it’s true students from certain ethnic backgrounds tend to dominate these kinds of academic competitions, that’s often because their parents prioritized academic enrichment opportunities for their kids, Tyre says.
“Most American families haven’t done that because they didn’t know about it,” Tyre says. “Instead of saying ‘they’re not American,’ we should be asking ‘what do they know that we don’t know?’”
Math competitions require competitors to be innovative problem solvers, a skill-set Tyre says “is part of our national identity—we were founded by engineers. That people don’t want to own that is just nuts.”
At the same time, there’s a growing math opportunity gap between kids from low-income families and their more affluent peers, Tyre added. Some states have been lowering the bar on mathematics requirements to help more students graduate. On the other end of the spectrum, “every private school head I talk to says their parents want more math, not less,” Tyre says. “It’s seen as the lynchpin for college admissions and success.” It’s worth noting that three of this year’s six math Olympians attend private or parochial schools.
Another persistent gap to be tackled is gender. It’s no secret that males outnumber females in STEM-related careers, so it also shouldn’t be surprising that boys also dominate the school-age competitive math circuit. But there are multiple campaigns underway to change that, and there are encouraging signs that those efforts are starting to pay off.
Po-Shen Loh, a mathematics professor at Carnegie-Mellon University and coach of the U.S. math team, said the Mathematical Association of America (MAA) is recruiting more girls into the national training camp and providing them with tailored support as they rise through the competitive ranks.