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September 04, 2015

Good As Gold

Math Professor’s Olympiad Team Takes Home Top Medals

By Jocelyn Duffy

IMO Team

Every coach wants nothing more than to see his or her team succeed. As team leader of the United States’ International Mathematical Olympiad (IMO) team, Associate Professor of Mathematics Po-Shen Loh proudly watched as his team achieved the ultimate success — winning the IMO.

A “mathlete” himself, Loh was a silver medalist at the 1999 International Math Olympiad.

His experience in the realm of competitive mathematics was extremely influential in his life, and something he wanted to bring to other aspiring mathematicians.

In 2002, Loh began teaching at the Mathematical Association of America’s Mathematical Olympiad Summer Program, which prepares students for the international competition. In 2010, he was named the deputy team leader, and in 2014 he was appointed team leader — equivalent to the head coach — of the United States’ IMO team.

As team leader, Loh brought the summer training program to Carnegie Mellon’s Pittsburgh campus.

Each summer, around 60 of the nation’s top high school mathematicians participate in the three-week-long boot camp where they are immersed in creative problem-solving techniques.

The idea that math can be seen as creative problem-solving is something that Loh teaches all his students, those in the Olympiad program and those at CMU.

He says that learning these skills will help students make the jump between what they have learned in their high school classes and the type of math that is done at the college-level, and from college math to the type of math that is done in academia and industry.

His hope is that he prepares his students to be successful not only in class or math competitions, but in their adult and professional lives. 

“Mathematics is not just about memorizing a bunch of formulas, but in fact is as creative as the humanities and the arts,” Loh told NPR after the competition.

Six high school students from across the country are selected for each year’s IMO team. In July, the team traveled to Chang Mai, Thailand, to compete against some of the world’s best teen-aged mathematicians.

In the two-day competition, each student did their best to complete six math problems in topics like algebra, geometry, number theory and combinatorics.

The problems are so hard, that often the best competitors complete only one. The difficulty is by design — the Olympiad aims to test students on creative problem-solving, not advanced techniques.

Loh and the team’s other coaches prepared the students well. At the international competition, five of the six high schoolers won gold medals and one won silver for their individual results, and team U.S.A. was awarded first place overall — something that they hadn’t accomplished since 1994.

“This historic result reflects an enormous amount of work by students, families, teachers and coaches, as well as an extensive national infrastructure for the cultivation of extraordinary mathematical talent,” Loh said. 

Po-Shen Loh (above, far left) poses with the IMO championship team. The title was the first for the U.S. since 1994.