US breaks Chinese domination in International Maths Olympiad

US President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama at a camp-out for Girl Scouts on the South Lawn of the White House on June 30, 2015. Obama has been encouraging US students to pursue degrees in the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) field so that the country can maintain its competitive edge in a highly technological world. PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON - After years of Chinese domination, the team from the United States finally broke their 21-year losing streak - clinching the top spot in this year's International Mathematics Olympiad.

"When you are able to upset a country that is four times your size as well as one where the conventional wisdom is that their strength is in maths and science, that's a big deal," said Dr Po-Shen Loh, national coach of the US Maths Olympiad team and Associate Professor of Mathematics at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU).

Dr Loh, who was born in the US but whose parents are from Singapore, said the win this year was not due to Asian-style cramming or intense training.

Instead, he believed it happened because of "a combination of the interest from the students and accessibility of learning materials".

This victory at the very highest level comes amid concerns of deteriorating maths and science standards in US schools on the whole.

The country ranked 36th out of 64 countries and territories in maths and 28th for science in the most recent Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) in 2012, where 15-year-olds are tested on their skills and knowledge in maths, science and reading.

In contrast, Singapore ranked second in maths and third in science.

In a nod to Asia's ability to produce good test results in maths and science, some countries have adopted elements of the Asian way of teaching.

Reports say that the United Kingdom has asked Chinese teachers to help review how the subject is taught and its Department of Education has developed a new maths curriculum reflecting principles of the Singapore approach, which focuses on problem solving.

In the US too, some schools have adopted the Singapore maths curriculum.

But not all agree that adopting Asian methods of teaching maths and science will help.

Instead, moving away from standardised tests in the US is a trend that Dr Ginger Warfield, Principal Lecturer Emerita at University of Washington's Department of Mathematics, calls a "hope-producing development" in her field.

She explained that "the capacity to question authority, to find creative off-the-wall solutions to problems, and to seek out unexpected aspects of situations has been part of the American culture since its inception".

"It is antithetical to be basing a system on the results of massive standardised tests. This is why testing does not, and will not, work in the US," she said.

For now, there still seems to be a wide gap in the maths ability among the best and brightest and the average US student.

"The country has quite a lot of very bright students, and quite a lot of excellent teachers, and when the two are combined the results can be brilliant - witness the maths Olympiad," said Dr Warfield.

"On the other hand, our population is enormous, and our socio-economic division is appalling, and increasing. The probability that a very bright student at a school in a poverty-ridden area will have the educational opportunities of one in a wealthy school is painfully small."

Even President Barack Obama has weighed in on the issue of falling standards of maths and science in US schools and has been encouraging students to pursue degrees in the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) field so that the country can maintain its competitive edge in a highly technological world.

While intrinsic socio-economic forces are at play, this is also an era where access to learning materials online is available to many who are interested.

Dr Loh believes the "limiting factor" to excelling in maths is actually student interest.

"As we continue to move into the future, the upper limit on an individual student's potential is not their access to trainers and coaches, but rather their internal interest," he said.

Even among the top maths students, Dr Loh says it is still important to nurture the love for the subject.

Dr Loh runs the maths Olympiad Summer Program, a three-and-a-half-week camp in June, but he does not overwhelm the students with too many hours of training.

"My main objective as director is actually not to win the International Maths Olympiad," said Dr Loh, who looks upon the camp as an opportunity to "inspire and motivate, and to increase students' interest in maths".

"They should enjoy themselves, make friends, and leave with good memories. I consider the camp a success if on the last day of the camp, nobody wants to go home," he said.

"My aim is also to get maths more in the news, in the media, in film," he added. "It could be more positively marketed."

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