Posted by: holdenlee | April 20, 2010

Second Thoughts about MOP


Yesterday I asked two of my friends, Delong and Yan, about what MOP was like. I asked because I am currently writing a story (more like a novel) that’s loosely based on math olympiad experiences (but with “math” replaced by a fictional subject) and want one of the settings to be an environment inspired by MOP. As an outsider who saw MOP as a kind of “holy grail” in high school, I had a very biased perception of it, and never really took the time to actually question my views. Anyway we started a very earnest discussion that took almost an hour, and I want to share some of those ideas here.

  • Some concrete facts first. Monday through Friday: 3 hours of (problem-solving based) classes in the morning (8:30-11:30 though sometimes going to as late as 12:15), more class during the afternoon (Red and Blue get off early ~3:30, Black MOP gets “neverending afternoon training”). Black MOP is much more intense, with tests every other day and mock IMO tests on Saturdays. Blue MOP is somewhat less intense, though many are just as hardworking. The Team Contest encourages Red and Blue MOPpers to spend free time working on math. Sunday afternoons and Sundays are free; Sunday evenings are test review.
  • Everyone approaches and benefits from MOP in different ways. Some let the math olympiad experience define them, and go on to become mathematicians; for others, it’s just one step in their life, and they move on afterwards, possibly pursuing other interests besides mathematics. (And for some, it’s hardly inspiring at all.) Some do it for love of math; others may see it as “testing the waters” for their interests or even as something to put on a college application. Before, I wouldn’t have thought there should (or would) be people other than the first kind, but now I know it’s important to really respect these people’s individual decisions. Despite what I may have said, my math experiences have propelled me in other directions besides math (such as forcing me to reflect, encouraging me to write, and then reawakening my lost dream of wanting to be a writer).
  • The debate over a big MOP: MOP used to be small (about 20 people), with students disciplined and motivated. 2002 was the year of the big MOP- between 100 and 200 people. A larger MOP would give more students the opportunity to benefit- not just the most talented ones- as well as attract more public attention to math. However, it may also take people who don’t care about being there- who can disrupt and divert resources away from those willing to learn. Indeed, a big criticism about the big MOP was that there was too much fooling around, which even manifests itself somewhat in the large size of red MOP. Some still prefer MOP to stay small and elite. Smaller MOP/ USAMO qualification would encourage those who didn’t make it to work harder (as I know from experience). Size alone doesn’t solve the problem of inclusiveness- no matter how large, there may always be people who are left out, or people in MOP who feel overshadowed by their peers (“it’s part of their humanities education”- an interesting way to put it). Though personally I think this is a somewhat weak argument.
  • Side note: It seems to me like Dr. Andreescu wanted to spread math to more people, but because it was hard to do within the framework of MOP, decided to start AwesomeMath. Of course it’s not a complete parallel- the level of intensity is markedly different- but it has been quite successful. Kudos.
  • Note 2: The split into USAMO and USAJMO was due in part to wanting to make sure that the younger group chosen for MOP would be more motivated and hardworking.
  • Note 3: MOP has grown to become the “center part of what high schoolers wish for”- the growth of the high school math community increased along the role of math competitions. Though I believe that math competitions have become overhyped sometimes, no doubt it did promote the growth of these math communities.
  • On working together: Zuming promoted teamwork, but unlike in other subjects it’s difficult to actually collaborate, since Olympiad math is all about coming up with the solution by yourself. Students do present solutions to each other- but listening to a problem done is not as valuable as doing it. The closest thing to working together seems to be working on problems in parallel and learning from each other’s thought processes.

As Yan said, Olympiad math is like many other endeavors- such as sports or college. Some people drop out. Some people just do it to get a diploma so they can get a job. Some people get passionate about the subject that they study and go on to grad school. We should not judge too much based on people’s choices. The important thing is for everyone to take a step back and look at how these events have contributed to our life- or how we can learn positively from them as we continue in life.

Please, feel free to discuss- more opinions would be welcome.

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