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The Math Olympiads: Going Up Against the World’s Best Math Minds

Recently, a group of middle school scholars from SA Harlem East were given a set of five math problems to solve. The problems were difficult and unusual. Some, like the one below, puzzled even the adults at the school:

Soshana looks in a mirror and sees the reflection of a clock behind her as shown in figure A. How many minutes later will the reflection in the mirror of the same clock next show the image shown in figure B?


This question appeared in the Math Olympiads, a five-question monthly test given from November to March. Last year, 150,000 students worldwide participated, including Success Academy elementary and middle school scholars. Working individually, without any help from teachers, contestants must find creative ways to solve these problems.

“They really like the Math Olympiads,” said Jun Yoon, a math teacher at SA Harlem East. “It challenges them, and they get to put all the pieces together and feel good when they do well.”

In January, Mr. Yoon’s seventh-graders competed against 16,577 students from the U.S. and other countries, all of them taking the same five-question test. Only 9 percent of those students were able to correctly answer every question. Three of them — Bennett Boakye, Messiah Desisso, and Branden Williams — were in Mr. Yoo’s honors math class.

Never before had any Success Academy middle school scholar earned a perfect score. The news spread quickly and was cause for celebration.

“My family was freaking out,” said Branden, who wants to go to college for engineering or medicine. “I have been trying so hard for the last two years to get 100 percent on the Math Olympiads, and finally I did it!”

Participating in these math challenges has boosted the scholars’ confidence and reaffirmed their love of math. Bennett, who plays on the basketball team and wants to go into medicine, said that because of the Math Olympiad, he feels he will be more competitive when applying to top high schools and colleges.

Mr. Yoon recently asked Branden to elaborate on his passion for math and approach to challenging problems, and for advice that might help his peers do well in upcoming Math Olympiads.

Why do you enjoy Math Olympiad?

I enjoy Math Olympiad because I get to see all different kind of problems. I get a thrill when I am challenged with questions I have to answer. There are many things that I don’t know, and I want to discover the unknown.

What about Math Olympiad do you find challenging?

It’s when I come across the type of questions that we didn’t learn and I don’t know how to approach at first.

What do you do when you come across challenging problems?

I need to remember all the strategies that I already know and piece them together into a new strategy, like into a puzzle.

What advice can you give to people who want to do well in Math Olympiad?

You have to keep in mind that it will not be easy at first, but you have to keep working through the problems and figure out what you need to do. Remember the strategies that you already know and use what you know.

Written by Success Academy February 17, 2015

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