Math Contest Prep is a new course offering from Girls’ Angle.
I’d like to say something about how this Math Contest Prep course came about, especially since those who know me know that I am leery of the negative aspects associated with contests.
Perhaps the first thing to understand is that the title, “Math Contest Prep,” is intended to be humorous. Today, there are dozens of math competitions that students can partake in, and the prize money is getting pretty big. It can be difficult to avoid becoming obsessed with math contests and one’s ranking. But with the right attitude, contests can be a lot of fun. You get to meet lots of people who like solving math problems and you can learn a lot of math that isn’t covered in the standard curriculum.
Math Contest Prep is intended to be a fun way to get the good side of contests without having to experience the bad.
In the past year, I was approached by a few girls who expressed an interest in some course that addressed contest math. At first, I was leery of the idea because I didn’t want to encourage “contest obsession.” I’m disturbed by how seriously some students take contest results. It’s especially alarming when a student who fails to advance to the USAMO from the AIME feels that they’re not good enough to do math. For reasons that could comprise an entire essay, such a conclusion is false. Also, at Girls’ Angle, our goal is to help girls become independent thinkers who develop the confidence and skills to tackle the yet unsolved. That requires a larger skill set than the one needed to solve contest math problems.
But, because of the number of girls who asked me, I learned that math competitions do provide motivation to learn more math, and that seems like a good thing. The standard K-12 math curriculum is overly limited and small in scope.
So I decided that maybe I could take advantage of the motivation induced by all those math contests to explore a lot of cool mathematics. At the same time, I can try to give perspective on math contest problems and show how they fit into the larger scheme of things. Furthermore, there are math contest problems that are beautifully constructed and illustrate a marvellous mathematical concept or technique in a particularly enlightening way.
So, in Math Contest Prep, much of the time will be spent learning elegant mathematical theories with the contest connection being that the theory will be theory that is typically found underlying the problems on math contests. Some of the time will be spent examining well-constructed math contest problems and breaking them down to their ingredients so that students can see how they were made. I will also invite students to create contest problems because creating good math contest problems demands more mastery of the mathematical concepts than solving them. I will spend a good chunk of time describing various ways to learn and master mathematics and handling the psychological aspects of problem solving so that when the class is over, students will hopefully be effective at being their own math teachers. I’ll explain techniques for getting unstuck and talk about varying one’s vantage point and achieving flexibility of mind so that concepts that are at first elusive can be absorbed. There will be some lecture, but there will also be a lot of interactivity and very often the students will be the ones doing the talking. To learn math well, one has to be active, so I will employ various techniques that induce highly active participation. I’ll also aim to create an environment where the girls can become very close friends with each other and help each other to find success in life.
Finally, I want to point out that there are many programs that explore a lot of wonderful math, such as the Math Circles, PROMYS, HCSSiM, Idea Math, Math Camp, Art of Problem Solving, and so many others that it would be impractical to list them all here. I encourage students to explore them all. They are wonderful resources. All of them work hard to improve math education in this country and it will take the efforts of many to succeed.
For more on the good and bad of contests, please see these posts by Cathy O’Neil: Math Contests Kind of Suck and her follow-up comments as well as this response by U. of Wisconsin math professor Jordan Ellenberg: Math is Like Earthball not ARML.