MIT training of SA mathletes for international olympiad

Every year, the South African Mathematics Foundation sends a team of six high school students to represent South Africa in the biggest and most prestigious mathematics competition, the International Mathematical Olympiad (IMO). An award-winning IMO alumnus, Dr Liam Baker, a lecturer in the Department of Mathematical Sciences at Stellenbosch University, has been leading the South African team since 2017, coordinating the training and selection of the top mathletes who go on to compete in the IMO. Last year, the South African team received six honourable mentions at the event in Norway, ranking 63rd overall out of 104 participating countries.

This year in January, a team of undergraduates with experience in competition mathematics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), travelled to Stellenbosch to run a training camp for South Africa’s top 15 high school mathletes. As an augmentation of existing training structures for the IMO, NITheCS funded the South African student attendance at the camp.

A great experience
‘I think for the MIT students it was great to experience some of our beautiful country and students. For the South African students, it was fun to get training in a different style and a privilege to be trained by a two-time IMO gold medallist,’ said Dr Baker of the training camp.

He added, ‘Speaking from my experience, I’d say that taking part in competition mathematics has greatly trained my problem-solving skills. So, studying at university and working in machine learning and as a lecturer afterwards is much easier than they would have been otherwise.’

While Baker has no predictions yet for the South African team’s performance at this year’s IMO, he has optimistic hopes. He also has words of advice for aspiring mathletes and young mathematicians: ‘Go for it! Don’t be disheartened when almost everyone talks about how hard maths is to them. You can be the change that results in people after you discover the beauty of mathematics too.’

We wish the South African team all of the best for IMO 2023, to be held in Japan in July. We know you will do us proud!