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In the league of champions

Understanding how things work whets the appetit for basic sciences. Photo: Special Arrangement

Understanding how things work whets the appetit for basic sciences. Photo: Special Arrangement  

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The math, physics and computing Olympiads throw up challenges but offer training that leads up to long-term rewards.

In India, on the face of it, the mathematics, informatics and science Olympiads do not offer direct rewards in terms of grand prizes or admissions to prestigious universities. Yet, many students participate in these, just to learn better and reap long-term rewards.

Keshav Dhandhaniya, who won the bronze in International Olympiad of Informatics (IOI, 2009) and silver in IOI 2010, joined Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he did a Bachelor’s in Computer Science followed by a Master’s in Artificial Intelligence. He has launched a startup now, called EagerPanda. He says, “The Olympiad training and algorithms were by far the most important thing I did during school. It has led to my admission at MIT. And that, in turn, has opened many doors.”

This year, Homi Bhabha Centre for Science Education organised the International Physics Olympiad 2015 (IPhO). While the centre was hosting the physics challenge, students were busy flying across the world to participate in the International Mathematical Olympiad (IMO) and train for the International Olympiad of Informatics (IOI), too. The IMO was held recently in Thailand, and the IOI is to be held in Kazakhstan from July 26 – August 2.

This year’s IPhO was one of the largest so far, with 83 countries and 382 students participating. In keeping with the format of the test, there was a theory part — three questions to be answered in five hours — and one experiment to be carried out in five hours. "For this purpose, the centre had to get ready 430 identical copies of the experiment and bring together a 130-member academic team for conducting and evaluating," says Dr. Anwesh Mazumdar who is a faculty member of HBSCE and the national co-ordinator of the science Olympiads.

The centre, in fact, is the nodal centre for five such Olympiads: Mathematics, Physics, Biology, Chemistry, Astronomy and Junior Science.

Representing India

Selection, training and preparation for these Olympiads take place over several rounds. Naturally, it is not that one simply applies and is called upon to represent the country in these challenges. Speaking of the selection process for the Indian Mathematical Olympiad, Prof. B Sury, professor at Indian Statistical Institute and co-ordinator for Karnataka for the mathematical Olympiad programme, says, “There are roughly 25 regions in India where the regional mathematical Olympiad, a three-hour test, is conducted. Based on this a certain number of people, usually 30 per region, are selected to participate in the Indian National Mathematical Olympiad, which is a four-hour test. From this, 30 people from all over India are selected, and they undergo a month-long training camp. At the end of this camp, the final team of six is selected based on several selection tests.” This is the kind of whittling down procedure followed by the organisers in general.

The main motivation for participating in these Olympiads is to improve one’s understanding of concepts better. “The Olympiad exam is different from both the Board exams, which are based on textbooks and rote learning, and the IIT-JEE, which is based on MCQs and is a speed test,” says Dr. Mazumdar.

There are further differences between the various Olympiads.

In fact, while the physics Olympiad curriculum has a fairly large overlap with the CBSE class XI and XII curriculum, this is not the case with the mathematics and computing (informatics) ones.

To incentivise or not

“Computing is not really taught in schools; so preparing for the IOI really takes extra effort. There are few incentives now. It is important to incentivise the programmes to encourage students to apply. Of course, in universities abroad, credits are given for participation in IOI,” says Madhavan Mukund who is the dean of studies at Chennai Mathematical Institute and national co-ordinator of the Indian Computing Olympiad. He adds that while Chennai Mathematical Institute offers direct admission for those who have participated in the training camp, International Institute of Information Technology (IIIT) Hyderabad treats such candidates as a special category for interviews and International Institute of Information Technology (IIIT) Delhi gives them a 10 per cent bonus after normalising the score. But for the effort that the students put into training for it, there may only be a few rewards in sight, the best of which would be a subject well learnt.

“It is frustrating, because [learning] coding and debugging takes time and practise,” says Prof. Madhavan, drawing attention to the extra time that students need to put in to learn these topics which are not taught in school.

Speaking about the mathematical Olympiad training, B. Sury says, “The top 30 who are part of the IMO training camp receive several advantages… they are entitled to apply for admission to the undergraduate programmes at the Indian Statistical Institute and the Chennai Mathematical Institute without going through the written test.”

But Dr. Mazumdar of HBCSE is not of the same opinion about incentivising the programme. He feels that the Olympiads are mainly aimed at motivating students to take up research and that incentivising would just lead to competitiveness and establishing of coaching classes.

The experience

Akashnil Dutta, in fact, won three medals in mathematics and computing Olympiads (a silver and gold during successive years at the IMO and silver in IOI in 2011.) He says, “There were many topics that I would not have learnt otherwise because they don’t exist in high school syllabus. These are very much worth learning for an advanced student because they are related to higher education and research frontiers in these fields. Furthermore, preparing [for the IMO and IOI] has developed my critical thinking and reasoning skills as well as developed my capacity to learn quickly.”

Malvika Joshi is an unschooler. Leaving school after her Class VII, she did not appear for the boards. While her former classmates are in Class XII, she is focusing on IOI 2015. She is also the first girl who will be representing India in IOI. Rewards are few and somewhat indirect, yet students continue to pursue their Olympiad dreams, choosing hard discipline over immediate gains.

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Printable version | Dec 16, 2019 1:11:12 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/education/in-the-league-of-champions/article7438206.ece

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