The war against Hamas didn’t stop Israel from sending six kids to an international math competition. Undeterred by the rockets flying back home, the six high school students returned with significant achievements.
Israel’s delegation to the International Mathematics Olympiad brought home six medals for their performance last week in a contest that pitted them against representatives of 100 other countries in a test of math skills. The Israeli team snatched up five silver medals and one bronze at the Olympiad, which took place this year in Capetown, South Africa.
Teams have two days to complete six complicated math problems in areas such as projective and complex geometry, functional equations and number theory. They are judged by how quickly they come up with the answers, as well as how “efficiently” they work through the problem, with points awarded for the most innovative approaches to problem-solving. Israel came in 18th place overall — not as good as last year’s 13th place, but still a huge improvement over Israel’s 31st ranking in 2012. This year’s winner was China, followed by the US, Taiwan, Russia, and Japan.
The Israeli team consisted of top students from some of the country’s best high schools, living in the most affluent neighborhoods, whose parents have some of the most prestigious jobs in business and academia — but that doesn’t mean that membership is “closed” to kids from less prosperous backgrounds or less prestigious academic backgrounds, according to Tel Aviv University Mathematics Professor Eilon Solan. He organized the team for TAU, first-time sponsor of the 19-year old program. It had been organized by the Weizmann Institute for the past several years.
“There’s no denying that in order to do well in the Math Olympiad, you need a strong background in math, which kids from better schools are more likely to be exposed to,” said Solan. “Whether they get a better education or are skilled enough that they gravitate to the better schools, the fact is that they are the better students and are more qualified to represent Israel in such an event.”
Even so, the doors are in no way barred to students from “weaker” backgrounds, said Solan. The International Mathematics Olympiad project is part of a larger Tel Aviv University science program for high schoolers of all backgrounds. “We at TAU have several programs at high schools that many would consider to be in less prosperous areas, including Holon, Rosh Ha’ayin, Ashdod, and others, and we had several kids from these schools who were in the running for being part of the team,” he said.
A total of 30 students were enrolled in this year’s Olympiad preparation program, and the top six, based on tests and performance, were chosen to travel to South Africa. “But in the past, there have been students from peripheral communities on the team, such as one from Ashdod who was a member two years ago,” said Solan. “I firmly believe that any student can qualify for our program and represent Israel in a contest like this. I’m proud of what we have done at the Olympiad this year, and I’m proud of our program.”