In Chang Mai, Thailand, Team USA eked out a narrow yet important victory in the International Mathematical Olympiad where the team of top-ranked students from around the country battled teams from over 100 other countries to come out the winner. The win ends a 21 year gap since team USA last took the podium. Social justice warriors were quick to bemoan the fact that only two on the team were female, but it should nonetheless be celebrated considering the lackluster press that U.S. education has received in recent years. The U.S. defeated China 185-181, with South Korea taking third.
Head coach for Team USA, Po-Shen Loh, said that it is important to teach the principles behind math rather than memorization of formulas. He sees this strategy as the best way to broaden math’s appeal to U.S. students and thereby increase their abilities in the subject. Loh is not new to the competition, having been a contestant in 1999, when the U.S. took 10th place. In recent years it has usually placed second or third.
The competition at the Olympiad is much less cutthroat than in the traditional Olympics. Teams sometimes actually assist one another, and many top students do end up coming to U.S. universities. Loh said about the competition, “I will say that it’s not really a super-great spectator sport, in the sense that if you are watching them, it will look like they are thinking…inside their heads, if you could spectate, that would be quite the sport.”
In contrast to the fact that the best students from the U.S. came out on top this year, American students still remain below average in the world in math and science. The win by Team USA is a good sign, but when are we going to see a ticker tape parade in Times Square for the achievements of these mathletes? Perhaps that won’t happen until, like Loh says, the events inside the competitors minds could be displayed using some yet to be made technology.