The International Mathematical Olympiad (IMO) will be held in Cape Town from 3 to 13 July 2014.
This event attracts the top mathematics scholars from around the world, battling it out for the top honours in a problem solving contest. With over 100 countries taking part, it represents more than 90% of the world’s nations.
Interestingly, this cross-section of scholars shows a clear distinction between the performance of different genders, races, and nationalities.
Boys perform better than girls, Asian countries feature prominently in these Olympiads, and Asian students also perform well in their non-native countries.
MyBroadband tried to find answers as to why some groups perform better than others in this contest.
Boys versus girls
The six South African IMO contestants are all boys, and this is not unusual. Only 10% of all contestants are girls.
A more staggering statistic is that there is not a single girl in any of the teams which finished in the top 5 in 2013: China, Korea, USA, Russia, and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
Professor John Webb, local organizer of the 2014 International Mathematics Olympiad, explained that it is a worldwide phenomenon that boys outperform girls in the IMO.
The exact reason for boys outperforming girls remains unknown, said Webb, although there are some theories.
Webb said that many factors may be behind boys outperforming girls, including the fact that males are more competitive than females. This may be linked to higher testosterone levels.
Webb added that more boys suffer from autism and Asperger’s syndrome, and there is a link between mild autism and mathematical genius.
It is interesting that the average mathematics performance of boys and girls is the same, but there are more very strong and very weak boys. Girls, on the other hand, do not have the same number of outliers.
South Africa’s basic education minister, Angie Motshekga said the dominance of boys in the competition reflected a worrying tendency in local schools for girls not to pursue top-level mathematics.
Specific groups which perform well
Asian countries and students perform particularly well in the International Mathematical Olympiad. Of the top ten nations in the 2013 IMO, six are Asian countries – China, Korea, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Singapore, Vietnam, and Taiwan.
Some top performing Western nations, such as the United States (top three in 2013) and Canada (ranked 11th in 2013), have mostly Asian scholars representing their countries.
Webb explains that the strong mathematical performance of Asian countries may be linked to a better work ethic.
He added that the prominence of Asian students in non-Asian countries may also be explained by the stronger drive associated with immigrants.
Mathematics olympiad performance similar to sport
Webb said that three things are needed to perform well in a Mathematics Olympiad: natural talent, a good coach (teacher), and hard work.
The fact that most Mathematics Olympiad competitors come from good schools in affluent areas is therefore not surprising.
These students have access to good teachers and facilities, such as the University of Cape Town’s mathematics training classes.
This gives them an advantage over their peers without such resources, and their performance is therefore higher.