This week, the top-ranked math students from high schools around the country went head-to-head with competitors from more than 100 countries at the International Mathematical Olympiad in Chiang Mai, Thailand. And, for the first time in more than two decades, they won.
Po-Shen Loh, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University and head coach for Team USA, says the competition is held over the course of two days. Students work on three math problems each.
The U.S. team last won the Olympiad in 1994. Reports in recent years have raised concerns that American math students are falling behind those in the rest of the world. But, Loh says, "At least in this case with the Olympiads, we've been able to prove that our top Americans are certainly at the level of the top people from the other countries."
Concerns have also been raised over the years about a persistent gender gap in U.S. math achievement. All six members of this year's winning team are boys. "That is actually something that one hopes will change," Loh says. "The top 12 people in the country on the United States Math Olympiad happen to have two girls in it. One might say, 'Only 2 out of 12, that's terrible.' But I should say in many years, it was, unfortunately, zero."
Loh says it's important to teach math as more than mere memorization and formulas. He says this is one reason, perhaps, that the subject hasn't attracted as many American students as it could.
I think there are other reasons why mathematics doesn't attract students: there is this overwhelming belief that mathematical ability is some inherent essence that you either have or you don't AND there is no cultural stigma about "being bad at math."