MY STORY | I aced maths through my unconventional problem-solving skills

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Emmanuel Rassou (17) says he hopes to follow in the footsteps of his idol Elon Musk. (PHOTO: Supplied)
Emmanuel Rassou (17) says he hopes to follow in the footsteps of his idol Elon Musk. (PHOTO: Supplied)

Emmanuel Rassou, who is in Grade 11 at the South African College High School (SACS) in Cape Town, outwitted the competition to be crowned champion of the recent South African Mathematics Olympiad.

The annual competition is organised by the South African Mathematics Foundation and involves 10 000 learners from around the country taking part in three separate rounds, with a final four-hour paper determining the senior winner for grades 10-12.

Emmanuel (17) received a gold medal and was declared the overall winner of the senior division.

“I would like to dedicate the medal to my late mother, who would have been proud of me," he said after his win. "I feel privileged, proud and overwhelmed. My dad jumped for joy when I was announced the winner. I had support from my school, teachers and my friends were happy for me.”

He tells YOU his story.

"I used to do puzzles with wooden blocks with my mom when I was very young and used to flip them over to hide the patterns to make it more challenging. I think it developed my problem-solving ability early on.

It was from here that my love for maths developed. But as much as I loved it, I didn't get high marks. I had an unconventional way of solving problems and interpreting questions and my Grade 2 teacher gave me a bad report which had my parents quite worried about my ability.

But once I found what worked for me, my marks gradually improved, so much that I found the confidence to take part in the Olympiad from Grade 7, which is when I achieved my first top 10 placing.

Emmanuel Rassou, school, Maths
For Emmanuel, competitions like the Maths Olympiad teach him how to solve problems creatively. (PHOTO: Supplied)

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Maths Olympiads are less about knowing the theory as it is taught in school and more about thinking of a clever way to solve a problem and often it requires combining various techniques to get to answer. Think of school maths as a normal jigsaw puzzle which can be mastered by most people while Olympiads are more like solving a Rubik's Cube where you need to learn some specific techniques to do it.

The win was not something I was expecting. The competition is incredibly tough. One small mistake and you may not make it. Even when you get the right answer in a fully written solution, I am never sure if this is the most elegant or simplest way to solve the problem.

There are so many unknowns. Already this year I have ended up in three-way ties in two previous competitions so the margins between coming first, second or third are paper thin.

I feel incredibly blessed to win the competition and hope I can defend my title next year, just like I did with my junior title when I won in 2019.

I won the SA Junior Maths Olympiad in 2018, just after I'd lost my mother, who'd been ill for a while, on Mother’s Day – three days before the final round of competition. 

I'm not the only maths boffin at home as my younger brothers, Noah (13) and Adam (11), made the top 10 in the primary Maths Olympiad.

Emmanuel Rassou, school, Maths
Emmanuel with his brothers, Noah and Adam, who are also maths boffins. (PHOTO: Supplied)

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I believe in giving back to my community so I'm always looking for ways to help others.

I give extra lessons to my peers at Voortrekker High School once a week and I'm part of the 67 Kids to School charity, set up by learners at my school where our goal is to help to send 67 young kids to Grade 1 every year.

We set up the charity in honour of Mandela Day three years ago and each year we've managed to reach our goal. 

The key to improving your marks is practise and problem solving. It’s better to practise regularly and ask for help from your teachers when you're stuck. Participating in Olympiads is also good to develop creative thinking.

When I'm not in the classroom, I represent my school in hurdles and received my provincial colours.

I'm thinking of studying maths at university, but I model myself on Elon Musk who’s an incredible inventor who transformed the banking industry through Paypal, the car industry with Tesla and the space exploration industry with Space X.

I don’t think there is a course to become an inventor but I hope to study something which will help me achieve my dreams."

Extra sources: timeslive.co.za, iol.co.za, capetownetc.com, samf.ac.za 

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