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Opinions of Wednesday, 28 April 2010

Columnist: Amponsah, John

When will Ghana get represented at the International Mathematical Olympiad?

By John Amponsah

The International Mathematical Olympiad (IMO) is an annual mathematics competition that is organised for teenage (pre-university) teams from all over the world to meet at a particular country to test their mathematical skills. Since 1956, the IMO has provided a challenge for young mathematical minds from all over the world (see http://imo.math.ca/). It is part of the "International Science Olympiad" (ISO) competitions, which include Physics, Chemistry, Informatics, Biology, Philosophy, Astronomy, Geography, Linguistics and Earth Science. The IMO is however the oldest of these competitions and (arguably) the most prestigious.

Ghana, and indeed African countries do well when it comes to football. Massive amounts of money gets spent on European coaches who train our teams to prepare for tournaments. This definitely not the case when it comes to international mathematics and science competitions. In fact, sub-Saharan African is WOEFULLY misrepresented! It is perhaps understandable if it were five decades ago but this should have changed since at least the last 20 years. This has got to change. I think this has more to do with an absence of a culture of maths and science.

Why can't we have a culture or spirit of academic competitions for the section of the population for whom this will be ideal, just as we have for football players? Logistically, it is possible to organise local, regional and nation-wide competitions in a cost-effective manner if will and commitment are present. Many countries who do well on these competitions are not as well to do as some rich countries in the world. Former Soviet nations, Asian countries and Latin American countries forward candidates some of whom excel in these competitions. North Korea are represented as well as Cuba. Iran, Mexico, Peru and Turkey have candidates who sometimes do as well if not better than those from Western European countries. China and Russia often do exceptionally well (these two are perhaps the best), and so do candidates from the US, Japan (as well as many countries in Asia like South Korea), and the Eastern European countries like Bulgaria, Hungary and Romania are forward teams that are a force to be reckoned with.

Or is it that this form of intellectual activity is 'not our thing'? I am "disinclined to acquiesce".

Only recently (November 5th 2009) there was an article on Joy fm where the author of the article was lamenting the fact that Ghana placed LAST in an international science and maths quiz (see http://news.myjoyonline.com/features/200911/37392.asp).

Now one might ask the question, why is this so? I think the answer is easy. As I intimated above, it is because we currently lack a culture of competitive mathematics and science competitions at a level that is comparable to what is found in other countries. Mathematics and Science competitions are just like any other competition. To be good at them, candidates need to be familiar with the orientation of mathematics and science competitions. They need practise and extensive experience. Those candidates who do well at the IMO level are usually veterans of national or regional competitions. Indeed some return to the IMO after having successfully made it the previous year (although this does not happen with the Chinese team because in any given year if they were to put forth their "team B", that team could easily score all-gold, that is, each participant could come away with a gold).

How do these competitions work? To begin with, every country has a different system. What is needed at the IMO level is for each participating country to come up with 6 students representing that country. Many countries who have done well in the past carry out preliminary competitions open to all secondary school students above a certain age. Sometimes there are various competitions at each secondary school level (JHS and SHS). These competitions consist of a set of multiple choice questions of varying difficulty, from fairly easy to hard. Subsequent rounds of testing require the candidate to actually show their working in order to gain points. About 6 questions can be given for students to attempt in a couple of hours. So based on the preliminary competition, further rounds of testing are carried out until the numbers dwindle down to a group of young minds talented in the particular subject. These are then sent off to a "training camp" (as is the case in many countries) where coaches train them to prepare for the main international event. At these training camps, aspirants have a chance to be make it onto the national team. Out of those who reach the stage where they get to go to the training camp, 6 candidates are finally chosen to represent the country. This basic structure is found with all countries. Some countries have really rigorous testing and training because there are so many potential candidates. This is the case with China.

My overarching point in this article is that it is possible and definitely beneficial to set up highly competitive nationwide mathematical challenges for young Ghanaian teenagers. Although only a few eventually get to represent the country, instilling such a culture at a high level (with easy to very difficult problems) can help a whole load of young minds aspire to this and other forms of intellectual activity. Getting coaches for the Ghanaian IMO team (and possibly other ISO teams) should not be very difficult. In the beginning it should be possible to get people either from Eastern Europe or from Asia (or both) to work along with Ghanaian coaches. These coaches are usually people who have themselves either had extensive experience with these exams (in their youth) and have been involved with preparing candidates for the exams, acting as junior coaches. The coaches make a big difference in how well candidates perform. China for instance is reputed to have amazing coaches. The Chinese team regularly forwards 6 candidates who all get gold. In some years more than one candidate sometimes gets the full score. The Russian team is not that bad either (in my opinion), their team regularly forwards candidates who all get gold (but not the amazing scores like the Chinese).

If we can have foreign coaches for our national football teams, we should be able to have foreign coaches (at least in the beginning) for our IMO and other ISO teams. Also when it comes to the logistics of planning these examinations, it should be possible to put together examination material for the local, regional and competition national levels in a cost-effective manner if serious thought and commitment is given to this proposal.

So, my fellow Ghanaians, this is a challenge facing us. In the US and in the UK (as well as in many other countries), students start practising for international mathematics competitions at the Junior high School level. In Hungary for example, the level of mathematics maturity among young teenagers may surprise some. This is because of the curriculum and the fostered spirit of healthy competitions. These types of competitions, if done well, can be a one factor that contributes to the growth of a a strong intellectual culture among the youth.

Mr Mensah Bonsu, the owner of Primetime was the one who started the "Brilliant Science and Maths quiz" that some of us have fond memories of. This was a great initiative. What we need is to take things to a whole new level. We should have an atmosphere of intellectual enquiry where there is no limit to the level of attainment, where there is a potential to have even a sixteen year old student work a problem that baffles a university professor. I am talking about having problems that test a range of abilities, with some so difficult that perhaps no teenager in the whole country can work it (in a given year's competition). If you see the questions that teenagers work on the IMO, you will know what I mean. I am aware that there is a national science and mathematics competition as well as a west African science and mathematics competition but perhaps the standard needs to be raised?

And in my opinion even these are not beyond Ghanaians. It is time for every intelligent and willing youth in the country to try out these types of competitions at the high standard found at the international level.

In my opinion, Ghanaians can once again be a conspicuous "face" of black Africa in this regard (so far it's not looking good). Let us forward experienced and well-prepared/trained teams of candidates to these mathematics and science competitions, it is definitely not beyond Ghanaian youth. Someone may even turn this idea into a viable business industry or even work in conjunction with government and academia).

It is my hope that this vision will materialise within the next ten years. Go for gold!