Tuesday, May 15, 2012

ISEF Question: Do math contests decrease math research?

I'm way behind in my postings, so this is a quick one to get back in the groove ...

I'm at Intel ISEF, the world's largest HS math, science, and engineering fair, as part of a team from Chicago trying to increase the number of students doing math research in high school.  On Monday, I walked down the math aisle and talked to the five or six kids I found setting up their projects--cool ideas, like using fractal dimension to quantify the distinction between cancerous and noncancerous cells, or linking quadratic residues to the number of digits in the base b expansion of 1/p.  And I asked them three questions:  Do you do a lot of math contests?  Have you ever done a summer math program?  Are you part of a math circle?  All eighteen answers:  no.

Now I like to think that doing these extracurricular math activities makes kids more interested in math and more likely to investigate mathematical ideas on their own, but this makes me wonder.  Some hypotheses in search of more data...let me know what you think and I'll report back after more extensive conversations on Thursday.

  1. Maybe the kids who do math research are doing it because they don't have any other outlets for their math interest, as a sort of last resort.
  2. Maybe the kids who do lots of other math stuff simply don't have the time or energy to do math research, because the other math stuff they do consumes all that time and energy.
  3. Maybe the kids who do lots of other math stuff are also the kids driven (literally) to lots of other "Race to Nowhere" activities, so that they don't have time or energy to explore and play, not because of the math they do, but because of everything they do.
  4. Maybe the kids who are driven to do high-quality research are exactly the kinds of curious loners unlikely to be attracted to math contests and summer math programs (ugh! other people!) in the first place.
Hypotheses #3 and #4 are most benign, because #1 and #2 are suggesting--to my chagrin--that part of the reason more kids aren't doing the most authentic math--the "I'm wondering about..." kind of math--is that many of them are doing math contests instead.  And that seems oddly backward.


== pjk