In a blue sky the wind blows warmly at the beautiful Irchel Campus of the University of Zürich as I meet five of the seven young women of the Swiss delegation that participate among 168 international contestants at the European Girls’ Mathematical Olympiad EGMO in Zürich.
They are all under 19 years of age, love mathematics and come from across Switzerland: Cantons Geneva, Zürich and Glarus, to name a few. Ivana Klasovita, Anaëlle Pfister, Yunshu Ouyang, Natalie Bäbler, Kanella Minakaki met each other during the qualifying math process in the previous months. On this gorgeous Sunday in April, they just completed the last 4 ½ hour test during a week-long program of math, excursions and friendship. They invite me to join them at their lunch table in the cafeteria and I see signs of both elevation and relief showing in their faces.
Asked about their impressions of program and tests, Ivana says she was surprised about the traditional Swiss songs at the opening ceremony; – she didn’t recognize the music or dances. “They must have been modern Swiss ones,” she speculates. Test rules are strict, but Kanella really liked how raising the white card to request more paper got her immediate attention and instant action, and Nathalie is just glad she allowed herself to be talked into participating at the European Girls’ Mathematical Olympiad EGMO by her friend Stefanie, a previous contestant, medal winner and current volunteer.
In unison, they think it’s “just cool” that every girl here also really likes math the way they do. Test materials are based on what’s taught at High School level, but the application is very different, they tell me. Three problems in seven different math categories, but the problems require a “much greater, open way approach to solving,” says Anaëlle. Numbers theory threw them all off. Points can be collected in showing process-steps along the way and of course if the problem is fully resolved. While the test is difficult, the girls enjoy the challenge. Calculators are not permitted and Kanella says this fact “adds to the satisfaction to negotiate the full process”.
From left: Ivana, Nathalie, Anaëlle, Yunshu, Yuxi
Do they find the stereotype to hold true that one’s either talented in sciences or languages? “At least 50% of all the girls here are into music in one way or another,” answers Yunshu, and Ivana adds: “math resonates with the Latin language, too, – one develops a sense for structural processes in general.” Nathalie enjoys perspective drawing. Many benefits, in many ways, but all the girls also enjoy the social interaction with different cultures in the connective context of math.
European Girls’ Mathematical Olympiad EGMO
Marco Gerber, Co-Director of the Association of Swiss Scientific Olympiads, explains: “ The European Girls’ Mathematical Olympiad EGMO competition encourages young women to maximize their potential and draw attention to the field of mathematics for other young women. The week-long program with female students from around the world fosters appreciation for diversity and provides opportunity for personal development and professional networking.” He continues: “Testing material is very complex. Abstract thinking is essential, yet the problems require much creative thinking along the lines of problems solving. While there may only be one answer in the end, there is more than one way to achieve it.”
The Association of Swiss Scientific Olympiads is Switzerland’s national umbrella organization and located at the University of Bern. Organizing EGMO is part of their activity. Management and liaison to government & other partners in the organizing of the seven international science olympiads in the disciplines of biology, chemistry, geography, informatics, mathematics, philosophy and physics constitutes the full responsibility.
It is a fascinating world onto itself and its goal and effect go far beyond the proliferation of scientific excellence for young people.
Science co-operation during cold war
The idea of Math Olympiads started in the late fifties in the former Soviet Union. Even during the heights of the cold war, the world of science quickly realized the benefits of international co-operation. Other nations joined. Rather than having one overarching international umbrella organization, today’s Olympiads in all disciplines, are organized through international cooperation of national associations. It’s a fantastic opportunity for young people to connect with like-minded others in the context of science. For themselves in the advancement of their careers as much as to build an important network of creative, outside-the-box, young science thinkers.
It became evident early on that young women were underrepresented in math Olympiads. Studies prove conclusively that women and men have equal math competences. The difference is negative self-awareness and lack of confidence in the young women themselves. What is at the root of this perception? Current studies are investigating societal norms. A recent study by Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zürich (ETHZ) documented the gender bias in terms of higher grades for male test participants which disappeared when the identical tests were graded without gender identification.
To support young women, inspire girls and increase female math Olympiad participation, EGMO was founded in 2012 through a private initiative of a math experts in the United Kingdom, and realized with support from math experts from Turkey and Luxembourg. Between April 6 and 12, 2017, the sixth such Olympiad was held in Zürich. At present, the Olympiad spans thirty-three European plus ten guest countries from North, South- and Central America to Israel, India, Japan, Tunisia and Saudi Arabia.
It was inspiring and uplifting to spend the afternoon among these young women from around the world. As I walked through the crowd spilling down the stairs from the exam rooms, I picked up excited smatterings of Japanese, Serbian, French and more. At the drop of a hat the girls switch to English to cross the cultural divide. Each of them, less than 19 years old, dressed from jeans to chic to nikab, it is evident that they shared a wonderful week of challenge, laughter and learning through the common thread of math. At the end of their time together, some of them carry home gold, silver or bronze medals for their extraordinary achievement. All of them take home memories, enrichment and a new network of friends.
In 2018, EGMO will take place in Florence, Italy, followed the subsequent year in Kiev, the capital city of the Ukraine, and the Netherlands in 2020.