Beautiful minds

Anna Douglas witnessses an explosion of ideas and genuine excitement over mathematical problems at the International Mathematical Olympiad in Glasgow

While our attention was monopolised by the nation's fittest and fastest at the Commonwealth Games this summer, our mathematical brains were also going for their own piece of international glory at the 43rd International Mathematical Olympiad (IMO) in Glasgow.

As the students gathered for the opening ceremony at Strathclyde University in late July, there was a buzz of excitement as they nervously awaited the start of the competition.

It's not often you see hundreds of students getting excited about mathematical problems. But these were no ordinary problems and no ordinary students. The contestants, aged 14 to 20, came from around the world to compete for medals in the biggest and most prestigious event of its kind. This year's competition was the biggest ever IMO with contestants from 84 countries - each with up to six team members.

The event involved two four-and-a-half-hour exams featuring six mathematical problems and mathematicians from all the competing countries were invited to submit potential problems for the UK organisers to consider.

Dr Peter Neumann, chair of the UK Mathematics Trust, said: "These questions are different from university problems because they are testing problem-solving skills rather than knowledge. They are much, much harder than A-level. They are also very beautiful, very elegant and very challenging."

Richard Atkins, deputy team leader for the UK, and a maths teacher at Oundle School near Peterborough said: "They try to set very difficult problems that demand depth of thinking, but are based on school maths. A good IMO question is one where most students don't have a clue where to start and spend an hour considering it and trying to find a way in, and then of course they have a knowledge of various mathematical methods to help them."

The UK team was made up of five boys and one girl, aged 15 to 18. At the start, the UK's youngest team member Paul Jefferys, 15, from Berkhamstead College School, Berkhamstead, admitted he was feeling anxious. He said: "I was the youngest last year and I got a bronze medal. So this year I was expected to do fairly well because of my achievements."

Paul improved on last year's performance but he still wanted more: "I was one mark off a gold. In one sense it's nice to know that I came 40th in the world, but it's annoying as I was aiming for a gold."

Together with the rest of the team, Paul had been attending training camps throughout the year at universities in Bath, Budapest, Cambridge and Birmingham.

After two days of exams the contestants were able to relax and enjoy a number of cultural excursions, including a visit to the Glasgow Science Centre and a trip on the paddle steamer Waverley, while their papers were marked.

The medals are awarded to individuals rather than teams, with half of the competitors receiving a medal. The UK team collected two silver and two bronze medals. Jenny Gardner, 17, from Tiffin Girls' School, Kingston upon Thames, who was awarded a bronze medal, said: "I really enjoyed it. It's been a good experience and I'm pleased with how I did - I was two marks off a silver. Just sitting the exam felt pretty amazing in a big room with 500 people from so many different countries."

China came top and two members of the Chinese team and one from Russia received full marks. Both countries were awarded six gold medals each and the US received four.

The six UK team members were selected from about 40,000 students who took part in a network of competitions. These events, which include the Enterprising Maths Competition and British Mathematical Olympiad, are part of a wider project to encourage children to get involved in maths.

Michael Davies, a maths teacher from Westminster School, said: "Children at this level need to stand out. They are very gifted students and it's important that we spot them and get them involved in these types of events."

For more information about next year's IMO in Japan, contact Angela Gould, executive director of the UK Mathematics Trust, Tel: 0113 384 5762. The UK team members were Jenny Gardner, Paul Jefferys, Tim Austin, 18, from Colchester Royal Grammar School, Nathan Bowler, 17, from Knutsford High School, Tom Coker, 18, from King's College, Chester, and Gavin Johnstone, 17, from Dame Alice Owens School, Potters Bar, Hertfordshire

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