Nothing can quite match the thrill of solving a challenging math problem. We might get stuck at first, but that does not stop us from puzzling through. We just keep at it. Try, try, and try. Think, think, and think. And then suddenly it all becomes clear, and down in the corner of a page covered in calculations and variables, the solution stares back at us. The passion and excitement we feel while solving a difficult problem motivates us to be better mathematicians and led us to found our club: Math Olympiad.
We first started talking about bringing the Math Olympiad competition to Hewitt as sophomores, and we began researching and planning for the club the summer before our junior year. We asked one of our mathematics teachers, Dr. Elizabeth Brennan, to be our faculty advisor, and reached out to Ms. Jackie Rose, the upper school dean of students, to share the information we had gathered and assess our next steps for starting a club. After more research, emails, and meetings, our club was approved and we began spreading the word to our peers. Although we are guided by studying for the Math Olympiad (an international mathematics competition for high school students), participation in the competition is totally optional, and we encouraged everyone — even those who do not consider themselves “math people” — to join our club. Our members represent grades 9 through 12 and a variety of different mathematical backgrounds, so we chose to focus our first few meetings on topics that would be interesting and accessible to everyone such as probability, complex geometry, and trigonometry. Meanwhile, we began gauging the specific interests and desires of our members and prepared to shift our focus to various problem-solving strategies.
We started the Math Olympiad club to make sure upper school students had a space outside of their classes to develop positive attitudes about mathematics while expanding their analytical thinking and creative problem-solving skills. We have always been enthusiastic math students, and throughout middle and high school we became increasingly aware of some of the common misconceptions about mathematics. As Dr. Brennan points out, “Mathematics is often thought of as a dry, finite, predetermined area of study, when in fact it is a field that is very much alive. The field of mathematics is growing and changing daily, and it is filled with opportunities to be creative and find joy.” Like Dr. Brennan and our other teachers, we disagree with the idea that math is a rigid practice without room for creative expression. On the contrary, we have seen firsthand that math is for everyone, that the study of mathematics offers tremendous power and insight into how the world works, and that only the most creative solutions can solve the most complex problems.
As the club’s founders, it is important to us to create an inclusive environment that appeals to all students. We are conscious of the multitude of stereotypes surrounding mathematics, including the ideas that math is only for certain people and that people who are good at math were simply born that way. Dr. Brennan shares, “Research shows that one of the most pervasive and damaging beliefs about mathematics is that if you are ‘good’ at it, you will do it quickly. Focusing on the problem-solving process, and on more open-ended problems that require investigation and exploration, allows students to see that doing mathematics is a skill that is learned through practice, not gifted at birth, and that there are many ways to approach or think about a mathematics problem.” By designing our club to be a space where everyone feels valued and where multiple problem-solving strategies are welcomed, we hope to combat the damaging stereotypes that leave many people, especially girls and young women, feeling that math is only for them if it comes easily.
Our approach to running the Math Olympiad club has been inspired by our own experiences as Hewitt students. For example, in middle and upper school we have both been fortunate enough to learn from teachers whose passion for mathematics is contagious. Whether students are struggling with a particular concept or eager for a new challenge, our teachers have always found a way for us to connect to the material and expand our knowledge. We wanted to replicate this kind of learning environment in our club, which is why we invited anyone who was interested in math to join, whether they were compelled by the competition aspect, the idea of improving their math skills, or because they just love sitting down and solving a complex problem.
One teaching strategy from our own math classes that we have incorporated into our club is student-led learning. Our teachers motivate students to pursue their personal interests and to look for ways to solve problems independently. Since everyone comes to the Math Olympiad club with their own unique goals, we encourage our members to focus on the specific types of math challenges they are most interested in solving. Dr. Brennan notes, “Too often students only get to think about or solve mathematical problems posed by others. But at Hewitt, we encourage students to choose the types of problems they want to investigate and to follow their own curiosity and creativity as mathematicians. When given opportunities to ask their own questions and build their own methods and understanding, students approach math with increased motivation and find more joy in the work they are doing. They are also building the critical thinking and independent decision-making skills they will need to be successful beyond school.” We know firsthand that this sort of self-directed learning not only adds to the thrill and satisfaction that comes from working at a grueling math problem and finally solving it, but also deepens our understanding of the methods used to solve problems.
We also look for ways to weave peer-teaching opportunities into our club. Our Hewitt math classes have helped us understand how important it is to learn from others’ perspectives, as there are often multiple ways to solve a problem. In Math Olympiad, members get to focus on concepts that are personally interesting to them, and after working independently to understand new ideas they are excited to share what they have learned with the rest of the club. We recently completed a project in which each member chose a problem to solve independently and then presented their approach, any challenges they ran into while solving, and their final solution to the rest of the club. This activity not only enabled every member of the club to engage with the material and take an active role in their own learning, but also offered us all a chance to teach and learn from our peers. We hope activities like this prompt members to recognize their individual abilities and potential, to see that they can do more on their own than they may have previously thought, and to become more independent and confident mathematical thinkers.
Most of our club members will be taking the first Math Olympiad test in February, and some will move on to the next round of competition. We will continue to support those members as they advance through the official Math Olympiad, but for the rest of our club, the work does not end with the test! Our long term goal is to inspire and develop mathematical passion and talent regardless of any particular test or assessment, and we hope to encourage even more upper school students to join us as we look for ways to connect our study of mathematics to real-world issues. This spring, we plan to collaborate with other student-led clubs to gain a better understanding of why women are so underrepresented in STEM fields and how we can change that, and to learn more about the role mathematics plays in issues of sustainability, equity, and social justice.
Our Hewitt math classes set the foundation for how we wanted to run our club, and we now have a greater appreciation for and understanding of our teachers who work so hard to educate and support us. Since starting our club this fall, we have already learned about the importance of patience and teamwork, the necessity of a positive learning environment, and how to build an inclusive and welcoming community of people with similar interests. Our experiences as mathematicians at Hewitt have expanded our passion for the subject and helped us develop a sense of purpose around sharing that passion with our peers, and we are thrilled to be able to give back to the community. We are so proud of our current members, whose curiosity and determination shine through, and we cannot wait to see this club outlive our time at Hewitt. Regardless of what our futures bring, we know our passion for problem solving will remain an important part of our lives, and we will continue to search for new ways to help others engage with and develop an interest in the field of mathematics.