Saturday, January 09, 2016

Marcus Maths in Melbourne

In December we sent Marcus to Melbourne for 10 days to attend the AMOC School of Excellence at Newman College, University of Melbourne. AMOC is the Australian Mathematics Olympaid Committee, and they select teams to enter the annual International Mathematics Olympiad.

There were 29 kids there from around the country, mostly grade 8-12 but there was one grade 6 boy and a couple of 7s. (Marcus was in grade 8 last year). While its a great experience for the younger ones, the final team of six is usually made up of Grade 10, 11 and 12s. Next year's IMO is in Hong Kong, and the team will be picked in June.

Marcus was selected for the School on the basis of his High Distinction in the AMOC competition, which is by far the hardest of the different competitions he enters regularly. When he came home with that result back in September, he was very excited as he understood there was the chance he would get an invitation.

The kids ate, slept and studied in the College for the duration. We managed to send him off without a toothbrush, and trying to solve that problem was an eye-opener to how purely maths-focused the whole thing was. The students were all treated as though they were at uni, expected to sort themselves out, yet very restricted in when and how they could leave the college. Elf ended up prevailing on our friend Vincent who lives nearby to buy a toothbrush and deliver it to the College office - they rang us to say it was there and we rang Marcus.

The extraordinary spire of Newman College's dining hall. The college was designed by Walter Burley Griffin. 
We were a bit concerned about Marcus becoming exhausted by the intensity of it, so we urged him to get out and walk to the shop for some chocolate just as a circuit breaker. We made a mistake then by ringing the director of the School (we didn't know who else to ring) and trying to arrange something.

This came across to Marcus as us interfering and trying to arrage special treatment for him, when all he wanted was to quietly blend in. We had some very terse phone conversations with him, which was a new experience for me as a parent.

The IOC exams are divided into four subjects; Algebra, Geometry, Combinatorics and Number Theory, so that is how the school was structured. They would spend a day working on one of those fields, then the following day would be a 4-hour exam like the one below, followed by a guided walk through how the tutors would have tackled it. Every working day was 8am to 8pm.

Each exam has 5 questions worth 7 points each - early on Marcus told us it is not unknown for students at an AMOC School to score zero on an exam. We laughed nervously at this, but on his first two exams Marcus scored 5 and 2.

Answers on the back of an envelope, thanks.
He did feel he was struggling, so our phone conversations were a tricky blend of encouragement, concern for his exhaustion, apologies for interference and general cheerleading.

As time went by he picked up some better exam results, made some good friends in the group and started to really feel he belonged. This snowballed so that by the end of the ten days he was lifelong pals with everyone there. I think he felt that after years of being a special case, it must have been wonderful to be in a room of people with similar abilities and skills. He returned full of in-jokes and new slang, learned from spending ten days locked up with a bunch of very, very bright, mostly older kids.

At home we had a funny ten days. It drove home to me that Marcus is by far the most extrovert and energetic of the four of us. Hours would pass with me reading, Elf doing a jigsaw and Michael doing his mysterious work, silently. The dog would sigh. The cat would flip over onto her other side. We were very relieved to pick him up from the airport, tired, noticeably taller and gabbling wildly about the next school in April.

He is actually working hard through the school holidays on eye-crossingly difficult problems to improve his chances of being selected to attend in April. To that end we have just found a mentor, a PhD student who we hope can give Marcus someone to bounce ideas off as he looks for the best method to do these problems - which typically can be done a number of ways.

Marcus's high school have been terrific with moral and material support - they contributed a quarter of the cost of attending the School of Excellence. It took over a year, but we eventually convinced the head of Maths that Marcus could comfortably deal with even the most advanced Grade 10 maths. He has now finished the high school maths curriculum, so this year he will be going off-site twice a week to attend Maths Methods 3 classes at Hobart College. At the presentation night, one of Marcus' maths teachers said quite happily 'he's nothing to do with us now!'

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