August 10, 2012 — U of T lecturer leads national team to fifth place at International Math Olympiad
Front Row (leaders and trainers) L-R: David Arthur, Ralph Furmaniak, Lindsey Shorser, Alex Fink. Back Row (team) L-R: Calvin Deng, Alex Song, Daniel Spivak, Matthew Brennan, Kevin Zhou, James Rickards. Photo by Kim Williams, courtesy of The Banff Centre.
By Jessica Lewis
The International Math Olympiad is not only a place where 500 high school students from all over the world go to compete, it's a place where they can go to feel confident, prepared and curious. That's just what University of Toronto math lecturer Lindsey Shorser wanted when she coached Canada’s team in the competition’s 53rd year.
The six students on the team left the competition in Argentina at the end of July with a medal each – in a total of gold for Calvin Deng (Cary, NC resident), Alex Song (Waterloo) and Matthew Brennan (Toronto), silver for James Rickards (Ottawa) and bronze for Daniel Spivak (Toronto) and Kevin Zhou (Toronto) – which ranked the team as fifth among the 100 countries which competed this year.
"We wanted to create an environment that focused on motivation and excellence without the trappings of pressure and expectation," says Shorser. "We kept the atmosphere playful, the team members already have years of practice putting pressure of themselves. It was our hope that every student would work to their full potential and not disappoint themselves, and in my opinion, this is exactly what happened."
Students train on their own by solving problems online, enrolling in extracurricular programs and working with professors. As well, Shorser and team leader U of T alumnus Jacob Tsimerman were among the organizers for the Canadian Mathematics Society camp in the winter and summer camp at the Banff International Research Station, the latter of which boasted the award-winning team of six students.
"The team came together in a uniquely cohesive way. It was amazing to see," says Shorser.
Shorser used her university-level teaching experience when crafting problem sets for the training. These sets often contain questions that get progressively more difficult and build on one another, leaving the student to modify their strategy a bit at a time until they can solve more difficult problems.
"It's my belief that a well-crafted set of problems should force students to look at the material from slightly different perspectives," she says. "We want each student to develop a sophisticated conceptualization of each topic in a way that's useful to them."
At the Olympiad, the students wrote the exam on two consecutive mornings. The organizers from teams voted on questions beforehand, and after, the marks are coordinated in pairs for each of the six questions and presented to judges. All of the five returning team members from previous years received a higher score than they have in the past.
"I am humbled by the extent to which this year’s team pulled together and worked to each person’s full potential," Shorser says. "They put an incredible amount of energy and focus into honing their skills. They deserve to be proud. I am proud of them. This team is a testament to the notion that putting faith in a student pays off."