High School mathletes come to uOttawa

Posted on Tuesday, July 14, 2015

“Some of the questions can be very hard,” says Khoury. “Some of them even my colleagues can’t answer as fast as they can.”

By Brandon Gillet

Each summer, uOttawa’s Department of Mathematics and the Canadian Mathematical Society (CMS) invite a select number of gifted high school students to campus to participate in the CMS Math Camp.

Graham Wright, a former professor who was CMS Executive Director for 37 years until 2009, has been organizing these camps since 2000, when the first one was held at uOttawa. He says that one of the camp’s important goals is to expose students to the various fields of study to which they can apply their math skills.

“One of the things I noticed about students in high school is they might be very good at math, but they often have no idea what they can do with it,” said Wright. “All they can ever really see is teaching, and of course, there’s so many careers they can use it for.”

The Math Camp participants are either in Grade 10 or Secondary IV in Quebec and are selected on the basis of exceptional results in either the Cayley or Opti-Math competitions. The camp is one of 16 in Canada sponsored by the CMS but, “ours is the biggest and the only bilingual one in the country,” said Joseph Khoury, a Math Camp organizer at uOttawa and professor in the Department of Mathematics.

Math Camp students normally stay in residences on campus for the week, although the camp was shortened this year to wrap up before Canada Day. The campers attend lectures given by Department of Mathematics professors, covering topics that they would not have touched on in school.

“They really try to push the envelope by giving them far more advanced material than they are used to,” said Khoury. “These are gifted kids; these are kids who are bored to death with their high school math classes.”

Just how gifted are they?

According to Khoury, the participants are already doing first- and second-year university calculus, so they need a challenge, which is the point of the camp. The lectures cover specific topics or describe the research being conducted at uOttawa; afterwards, students are grouped into  teams to solve equations and compete for a host of prizes.

Many students are very quick at finding answers to difficult questions, but may have trouble breaking down and describing how they found the answer.

“So another purpose of the camp is to give them the tools to explain their answers in the most elegant way,” said Khoury.

Another important camp goal is to help these students connect with their peers so they can begin to establish networks.

“One of the unique things is how the students come together as individuals, but over the four days, they band together as a group,” said Wright. “It’s really interesting to see the dynamics of how they establish their networks, because moving forward, they now have 48 contacts they can maintain.”

Math Camp History

Math Camp began as a training camp hosted by Waterloo University to prepare high school students to compete in the International Math Olympiad. In 1995, Graham Wright was on campus when the International Math Olympiad was held in Canada.

“So I saw these kids spending a week at Waterloo with professors and thought ‘this is good for the students and the university’,” said Wright.

A pilot project was conducted at three universities across Canada in 1999. Since Graham Wright was a math professor at uOttawa at that time, and already involved in the initiative through the CMS, uOttawa was a natural fit. Even though Wright is now retired, he still plays an active role in the CMS Math Camps here at uOttawa.

“I was fortunate enough to have a very good job teaching here, as well as [being] Executive Director of the CMS,” said Wright. “Anything I can do to show kids the value of mathematics is a win. To me, it’s important to keep the youth coming in.”

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