Campus & Community

Stevens Math Olympiad Inspires Creativity for Future Impact

USA International Mathematical Olympiad Coach, Po-Shen Loh, returns as guest speaker for the seventh annual competition

Mathematics and innovation go hand-in-hand. Navigating spaces of not-knowing and wrestling with challenging, unfamiliar problems are how new ideas emerge. This concept was made clear at the 2023 Stevens Mathematical Olympiad on Saturday, May 20.

Almost 300 registered participants attended the event at the Stevens Institute of Technology campus in Hoboken, New Jersey. Hosted by the Department of Mathematical Sciences, the free competition introduced important math concepts that help strengthen mathematical intuition and inspire creativity among students in grades three through twelve.

“We initially heard about the Math Olympiad from a friend of ours when our son was in third grade and have made sure to sign him up every year since,” stated a parent of an eighth grader.

student taking test at the 2023 Math OlympiadParticipant focused on exam during the 2023 Stevens Mathematical Olympiad

While the competition generally attracts students from the tri-state area, participants traveled from as far as Florida to test their mathematical skills at the seventh annual event.

As elementary and middle school students began testing, high school students and their parents/guardians convened in Edwin A. Stevens Hall, DeBaun Auditorium for the welcome and opening remarks provided by Pavel Dubovski, Math Olympiad Committee Chair and Department of Mathematical Sciences teaching professor, and Nariman Favardin, President of Stevens.

“I love mathematics. I love mathematics for its precision. I like math for its discipline. I like it for its elegance. I like math because of the way it makes my brain work,” began Favardin.

The keynote speech was delivered by Po-Shen Loh, social entrepreneur, Carnegie Mellon University math professor and national coach of the USA International Mathematical Olympiad team. Returning as a guest speaker for the second year in a row, this year marked Loh’s first in-person visit to the Stevens campus as he joined the event virtually in 2022.

Po-Shen Loh and Nariman Favardin standing, in conversationPo-Shen Loh and Nariman Favardin in conversation during Welcome and Opening Remarks

“Last year Dr. Loh had an amazing online presentation, and I believed that his in-person appearance may bring new insight and impressions,” shared Dubovski.“ I am happy to say that these expectations did really work out. Several parents have notified me, expressing that they were encouraged by his talk and the follow-up communication.” 

After thanking the planning committee for inviting him back for a second time and noting the beauty of the Stevens campus, Loh began his talk by sharing some of his own experience as a Math Olympiad participant with the audience. The math professor, who frequently competed in math competitions throughout his childhood, expressed that for him the fun came in not knowing how to do the problems. 

“You see, sometimes people try to prepare, prepare, prepare so that they won’t have any surprises. I love surprises! That’s where innovation comes from…Innovation only happens when you don’t know what to do.” 

The Math Olympiad exam features 15 problems based on grade level, separated into three sets: five relatively simple problems, five average-level problems, and five advanced problems. Volunteers were available throughout every testing room to help guide students' critical thinking and clarify challenging concepts when needed.

Math Olympiad volunteer assisting student with exam question2023 Stevens Mathematical Olympiad volunteer assists student with exam questions

“This year the simple set was easier than the previous years, which allowed almost all participants to solve at least several problems and, thus, leave the Olympiad with a certain satisfaction,” explained Dubovski.

When asked their thoughts on the exam, student responses varied: 

“The test was easy to me! I think I aced it!” expressed a fifth grader.

“I found some questions easier than others, but I think I did okay overall. I couldn’t answer one problem, though,” stated a seventh grader.

“I found it challenging. But that’s why I’m here. I’ll be back next year,” shared a tenth grader.

All participants received their test scores via email in late May. Top performers returned to campus for the 2023 Math Olympiad Awards Ceremony held on Saturday, June 10.

Empowering Innovation for the Future 

Pointing out the recent advances in generative artificial intelligence, namely ChatGPT, and noting the probable impact it will have on jobs in the future, Loh encouraged students to transform their mindset from “Where are the tasks given?” into “What can we do?”

“It used to be, you want to do well in school, get a college degree, figure out what kind of job you could get. These days–meaning in the future–these days, the interesting thing is to figure out what kind of jobs you can make. Because you’ll have the power to make your own AI army do what you want it to do.”

By approaching their next steps with a mathematical or analytical mindset, Loh–who has pioneered innovations across the spectrum of mathematics, education, and healthcare–further explained that students’ [thinking] power will help them create something that can make a massive impact in the real world.

Po-Shen Loh speaking on stage in DeBaun AuditoriumPo-Shen Loh speaking during the 2023 Stevens Mathematical Olympiad

Note: All images of participants are featured with their consent.