SA maths nerds to flex brains in Thailand

2015-05-22 07:48

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Johannesburg - Six “mathletes” from South Africa will be vying for gold at this year's International Mathematical Olympiad (IMO), to be held in Thailand in July.

Held in Chiang Mai from July 4 to 16, they will compete with entrants from over 100 countries in the World Championship Mathematics competition for high school pupils, and hope to enter the ''hall of fame'' of top contestants.

''We have 'stars' of the sports field and 'stars' in the entertainment world. Mathematical 'stars' are very flexible and become leaders in other areas as well," said Zanele Ncongolo, media officer for the SA Maths Foundation (SAMF).

''For example, Mark Shuttleworth was a silver medallist in the South African Maths Olympiad,'' Ncongolo said of the billionaire South African-born entrepreneur and Afronaut.

''Internationally, IMO medallists have gone on to win major awards for mathematical achievement. In 2010, three of the four fields medallists (the equivalent of a Nobel Prize in Mathematics) were former IMO medallists.''

The mathletes

Last year it was the turn of Cape Town to host brainiacs from around 100 countries in the world. This year five of the six South African candidates are from the Mother City.

Andrew McGregor, from Rondebosch Boys High, Yaseen Mowzer from Fairbairn College, Sanjiv Ranchod and David Broodryk from Westerford High School, Bronson Rudner from South African College High School and Nicholas Kroon from St Andrew's College in Grahamstown will spend a week of intensive preparation at Wits University in Johannesburg before flying to Thailand.

Rudner, Mowzer and Ranchod represented South Africa in Cape Town last year, and McGregor when Colombia hosted the competition in 2013.

In two papers of four-and-a-half hours each, the high school pupils will be tested on geometry, combinatorics, number theory and algebra.

But the group will also hopefully make like-minded friends, and share their cultures and education.

Insight, ingenuity and logic

The questions are more demanding than classroom tests and require insight, ingenuity and logic, said Ncongolo.

They give promising young mathematicians a chance to expand their potential and shine.

While most of us may have been lost after combinatorics, perhaps at times having felt like Economic Freedom Fighters leader Julius Malema who famously got an H in maths, 16-year-old McGregor is one of the gifted few in the country who enjoys the mysteries of maths.

By Grade 4, while many are still puzzling the intricacies of long division and trying to remember their number bonds, McGregor was plotting to get to Hong Kong for a mathematics competition. And by Grade 7, he did just that.

He said his graphic design mother Lisa, and tour guide father Ron helped him ''up to a point''.

''After that I didn't require much help,'' he said modestly.

He takes extra private classes and joins about 30 others at a mathematics group at the University of Cape Town.

His secret is simple: ''Pay attention in class. Don't get distracted. Do the homework. And practice.

''Practice leads to a development of intuition. The more you practice, the more you notice how you solve problems.''

He thinks the television series Numb3rs' is a great show, but for him the jury is still out on whether the character of doe-eyed professor Charlie Eppes who uses maths to solve crime, and a movie about physicist Stephen Hawking's life, will change maths from being scary, to sexy.

In his spare time, he plays flight simulator, and builds on his general knowledge.

'I'm definitely a nerd'

Asked whether he is nerdy, he says without hesitation: ''I definitely consider myself a nerd. I don't do physical sport, though I try to do some exercise. But I do stereotypically nerdy things. I am pretty much 100% sure I am a nerd.

''You exercise with your muscles, I exercise my brains.''

He pays tribute to his mathematics teachers saying: ''I have definitely had good luck with teachers. In upper prep and in high school they were both very encouraging.''

When he leaves school, it won't be a stuffy research laboratory for him, as he hopes to become a pilot for a commercial airline.

In the meantime, he is looking forward to his first visit to Wits University for gruelling preparation at the Centre of Excellence in Mathematical and Statistical Sciences, and spending time with other maths fundis before they jet off for the competition.

Prof Johann Engelbrecht, SAMF executive director said: “Competing with young minds from all over the world is a wonderful experience and we wish the South African team the best of luck.”

- Do you have what it takes? Try last year's paper from the International Mathematical Olympiad below or click here to download the file.

- Click here for the answer sheet.

The International Mathematical Olympiad 2014 questions

- An earlier version of this story omitted the name of Nicholas Kroon from St Andrew's College in Grahamstown. News24 apologises for this error.

Read more on:    cape town  |  thailand  |  education  |  good news

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