Colorado Math Olympiad transforms C-students into professors

April 27, 2015

April Wefler
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April Wefler | The Scribe

The 32nd Colorado Mathematical Olympiad was held on April 24 from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. in the Gallogly Events Center.

Around 325 students from secondary schools were in attendance.

“If you win or lose against another high school [in sports], that will appear in The Gazette as important news. But if you’re brilliant in mathematics, never mind that,” said founder and interdepartmental studies professor Alexander Soifer.

“So I have to create a culture of appreciation for the brightest kids in mathematics because they’re the ones who will become future mathematicians, philosophers, historians,” he said.

“We allow youngsters to shine.”

The students were very diverse and seemed an even balance of both boys and girls. No girl has ever won the Olympiad, but several have received second place.

Participants were given a sheet of five problems and four hours to complete them.

Problems included questions like, “Can 2015 unit cells of an infinite square grid be colored purple so that each purple cell has an odd number of purple neighbors? (Neighbors are the cells that share a side.)”

The answers were graded by 14 judges, many of them previous Olympiad winners.

Although students are scored on mathematical findings and showing their work, Soifer said the Olympiad is more about creativity.

The Olympiad is held at UCCS because Soifer is a UCCS professor. He said the event could be held somewhere else, but that there’s something special about it being held at a university.

As a boy in Russia, Soifer won for three consecutive years at the Moscow State University Mathematical Olympiad. Soifer said he was an A student, but that it was to please his mother. It wasn’t until the Olympiad that he fell in love with mathematics.

Shane Holloway, software development manager for Amazon, competed as an Air Academy high school student from 1994-98. He has been an Olympiad judge since 2000.

“Math is beauty, math is fun,” said Holloway. “[The Olympiad is] seeing mathematics revealing the beauty all around us.”

Michael Skaggs, former submarine navigator for the Navy, participated in the Olympiad as a high school student. Skaggs said he was good at math, but he wasn’t fascinated by it until the Olympiad.

“I don’t think that kids get math of this flavor in high school. It’s real math; you have to create something to solve these problems,” he said.

Melina Harris is an eighth grader attending Aurora Quest, an alternative gifted magnet school.

“I wanted to challenge myself,” said Harris. “It was hard. I was only confident in two out of three questions.”

Christopher Lehman is also an eighth grader at Aurora Quest.

“I really enjoy math and I really wanted to see why other people enjoyed it. I found it really challenging; it took a lot of creativity,” he said.

“I like the kind of questions that they ask and the answers don’t matter to them. They want to see the kind of solutions you come up with,” said Emily Chang, an eighth grader from Mountain Ridge Middle School.

Aaron Parsons competed as a high school student from Rangley, Colo. His math teacher brought his class on a six hour trip to participate in the Olympiad.

Parsons won first place and was accepted to Harvard as a math major.

“He wrote to me that it was only because of this Olympiad and his teacher that he was able to get into Harvard,” Soifer said.

Parsons is now an astronomy professor at the University of California-Berkeley.

“Without this Olympiad, we would’ve lost a brilliant professor at Berkeley,” Soifer said.

Another winner was C-student Matt Kahle, who was refused admission by UCCS because of his GPA. He attended Pikes Peak Community College and eventually earned his post doctorate at Stanford.

Kahle is now a math professor at Ohio State.

“This is what the Olympiad is needed for. Not for A-students – they’ll find their way – but to take a C- student and tell him you are a great talent, you are the best, meant to change his life perhaps from some manual job to the fact that he’s professor,” Soifer said.

Winners will be announced May 2 at 4 p.m. in Berger Hall. Chancellor Pamela Shockley-Zalabak will address attendees. Additionally, Soifer will read a letter from Governor Hickenlooper and leaders from Districts 11 and 20 will speak.