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Solve this! Today’s modest mathematical challenge

US Team with medals_(83)_Courtesy MSRI
From left to right: Alicia Weng, Danielle Wang, Jingyi Zhao, Gabriella Studt, Laura Pierson, Cynthia Day, Victoria Xia, and Courtney Guo. Photo courtesy of The Mathematical Sciences Research Institute

As some of us pat ourselves on the back for nailing a percent-change calculation, there are people out there — young people — who are solving problems I can’t begin to describe.

Laura Pierson, a 12(!)-year-old who goes to Oakland Unified’s Hillcrest School, is one of them. Laura was the youngest person to compete with Team USA in the China Girls Mathematical Olympiad; she won a silver medal in the contest and returns to home tomorrow.

Each day, 204 girls from 10 countries had four hours to tackle four problems. I’ll post the test — provided by the Berkeley-based Mathematical Sciences Research Institute — below.

Reading the girls’ travelogue, I was struck by Laura’s statement that she was “terrible” at geometry and “pretty much everything.” (Reflexive modesty, perhaps? Or maybe that’s how you see yourself when you’re surrounded by the other top teenage mathematicians in the world.)

So this morning we had Recurrences and Graph Theory, both of which were really cool! Pretty much all math is really cool. Except geometry, which I’m terrible at. (Actually I’m terrible at pretty much everything…) This afternoon we had a class called Smooth Fudge. We were joking that it should teach us to “fudge” our geometry diagrams using things like the Big Dot Theorem and the Circumpotato of an arbitrary polygon. It turned out to be this technique for solving inequalities though. It was still pretty cool. Overall MOP has been a lot of fun. I’ve learned so much and I’ve actually met people who share my passions and don’t think I’m crazy for wanting to spend a month of my summer doing math. It’s actually past midnight now, so goodnight (morning?)!

Congratulations to Oakland’s extremely un-terrible math whiz, who will soon start seventh grade. I wonder: What do teachers do to challenge her — and others like her?

Anyone else up to the Olympiad challenge? If so, I have the answer key, which I can post later this week.

Katy Murphy

Education reporter for the Oakland Tribune. Contact me at kmurphy@bayareanewsgroup.com.

  • Nontcair

    MSRI is funded primarily through NSF grants.

    IOW, poor single moms in the flatlands whose children attend really bad public schools and likely will never graduate high school (much less attend university) have to pay higher social security taxes so that a rich girl from the highlands can receive an all-expense paid trip to China and get a leg up on early admission to Cal Tech.

  • Teaches at Oakland School

    Wow, sour grapes? If your child goes to a bad school, then it is your responsibility to make sure she gets what she needs elsewhere. Does she get pushed at home to do her homework-and if there isn’t much homework, then is she given work to do by her mother to push her to learn beyond what her school is teaching her? It is so easy to graduate from high school in Oakland, the classes are not hard if you don’t want to take hard classes. If a child doesn’t graduate from high school, they have only themselves and their parents to blame.
    ANyone can go to university-go to a JC and transfer. All it takes is drive and a lack of excuses.
    BTW, your social security taxes aren’t paying for the trip to China.

  • Observer

    “If your child goes to a bad school, then it is your responsibility to make sure she gets what she needs elsewhere.” Really? The school bears NO responsibility for being a bad school? While I agree that it really does take the families of said school’s effort (be that a single parent, two parents, foster parents, grandparents, guardians, what have you) to make for a good school, it is NOT solely on their backs. We are in a good school. It’s a part-time job for about half the parents there to keep it a good school. The teachers do their part and there is mutual appreciation. I believe my tax dollars are more than sufficient for the district to provide the support we provide, but the district does not agree with me and strips us bare. However, being a good school community is not enough when faced with poor teaching quality, which we have as well in one or two teachers. For those families, those years are nightmares. No amount of extra “busy” work or outside support can make up for what those kids have experienced for 6 hours a day.

    It is disheartening to read such a thought from a teacher. Do you know what it is like for smart, capable, prepared kids that come from supportive households to go to bad schools? It’s hell. I know because we get them transferring in all year long and they come shell=shocked. So do their parents.

  • J.R.

    The major cause of so called bad schools is apathy(from teachers,students,parents) or any combination thereof. I have witnessed all permutations of poor work,study, and life habits. A bad parent can will hurt there own child academically, a bad child will hurt themselves , and may compromise the learning time of other students, but a bad teacher will disrupt learning for a whole class and render them unprepared for the following year leaving them two years behind. All the stakeholders need to do better, but that is not going to happen because there are no mechanisms to ensure it. There is no real accountability, people who do a poor job of parenting will keep failing students who lack proper guidance will fail. There are teachers who are left to hand out busywork in lieu of sufficiently rigorous work,not even correcting and returning it. Teachers who are in effect, retired years before they actually retire. There is plenty of blame to go around, and some districts are worse than others as some schools are worse than others. It’s the community that matters, and the people in it.

  • Nontcair

    #2 wrote: social security taxes aren’t paying for the trip to China

    You’ve been logically correct for only about a year or so.

    Until then FICA was taking in more money than it was paying out in benefits. The “surplus” was immediately lent to the UST and used to pay for expenditures like … NSF grants.

    The FICA positive cash flow situation has now reversed (permanently). The annual deficit is > $100B and growing.

    No more Wars for US Population Control!

    Of course, FICA has always been just another government latency scam, though you have to admire the lengths which it has gone to hide its chicanery in plain sight.

    I’m still waiting for my “peace dividend” check.

    As for parental responsibility I’m sorry, but based on the taxes we all pay to support the schools parents have a not unreasonable expectation that their kids will be taught *there* and not have to rely on learning centers, private tutors, and even performing the task themselves (close to midnight) when they’re already exhausted from their own long days.

    For that matter, why do have to tolerate (and pay up for) bad schools (the norm) in the first place? What is public education in business for?

  • J.R.

    Bad schools are tolerated because:

    1. The people who live there don’t expect better.

    2. The education system gets paid the same(or even in some cases more for struggling schools).

    3. The culture of apathy begins to grow comfortable like old leather shoes, and people unknowingly(or knowingly)embrace it, because after all the checks are coming in, and their future is secure relative to most of the tax-paying cretins out there in the real world.

  • Nontcair

    Ask yourself: What problem do we want public education to “solve”?

    I dare say (again) providing basic skills to bona fide resident poor kids desperate for some sort of education but whose personal circumstances would shut them out. As an alternative to nothing at all.

    In reality, our system keeps such kids “detained” (180 d x 6+ hrs) with all sorts of future felons whose mission, during that quarter of their lives, is to make that sympathetic kid’s experience as miserable as possible while being taught nothing at all.

    As if that weren’t bad enough, that “safety net” mission is being exploited as an egalitarian pretext for providing “free”, convenient, pre-UC caliber education to a relatively small number of rich kids as an alternative to Head Royce.

    Their parents try to assuage feelings of guilt with clarion calls for “diversity”.

  • J.R.

    First of all the US education system is meant to educate U.S. citizen children, and furthermore when we try to solve other peoples problems we just end up with orders of magnitude more problems. Those U.S. citizens who pay property taxes(foremost)payroll taxes(secondarily)should always make use of any and all public resources that they pay for with the taxes taken from them. After all parents and children who strive to be well educated is a benefit and asset to the country as a whole. Conversely those parents and children who do not see education as a priority will most likely be a liability, and a drag on society for the rest of their lives.

  • Nontcair

    I think therein lies a general defense of central planning: X is good for society therefore the government should encourage (through targeted spending, tax incentives, legislation, etc) greater production of X.

    I think therein lies a general defense of, well, I don’t know what to call it! An elitist form of socialism which holds that those who pay a disproportionate share of the taxes hold the superior right to that money upon its distribution on programs which they champion. For example, children of those who pay the highest property taxes should have first priority on assignment to “good” public schools and use of public sports fields.

    The new distributism.

  • Marcia

    People, really. What do all these comments have to do with the post? Please be on-topic rather than using this blog (which on occasion has produced some very interesting and thoughtful discussions) as an excuse for venting about your pet peeves, especially when you’ve expounded the same views multiple times previously.