A team of US teenagers just won the International Mathematical Olympiad for the first time since 1994.
The International Mathematical Olympiad is an annual competition in which top high school students from over a hundred countries attempt to solve extremely difficult maths problems.
The head coach of the US team, Carnegie Mellon University maths professor Po-Shen Loh, described the problems as helping to “bridge the gap between the kinds of problems most kids see on their high school maths homework and real maths research,” in an interview with Evelyn Lamb for the Simons Foundation.
Students are given two sets of three problems each on two consecutive days, with four and a half hours on each day to tackle the problems. The problems test competitors’ abilities to approach situations creatively, rather than memorized formulas.
The problems are generally fairly simply laid out, but require a lot of analysis to understand.
For example, one of the problems from this year’s Olympiad asked competitors to find all the sets of three whole numbers such that multiplying together any two of the numbers and subtracting the third number gives you a power of two. There’s no fancy equations or formulas here, just a ridiculously puzzling brain-teaser.
Being able to wrap your mind around problems like this, and figuring out different ways to look at problems, are at the core of what maths is all about.
Kudos to the US team for their victory!