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Maths geniuses battle it out in competition

- Wits University

Five hundred Maths stars from across the country participated in the 2020 Wits Maths Competition.

The annual Wits Maths Competition (WMC) shone the spotlight on talented Maths whizzes in the country.

The competition, which is in its third year running, puts the mathematical skills and knowledge of learners from Grade 6 to university level to the test. It aims to nurture and develop the full potential of participants in the subject, while promoting Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths careers.

A total of 3 500 entries were received this year and 500 of these made it to the finals. Jonathan Kariv, one of the coordinators of the competition said that despite the decline in the number of entries in comparison to previous years, the WMC has sparked an interest in schools in Africa – an indication of growth of the competition. “There is a collective of about 20 Nigerian schools who want to enter in 2021,” he said.

The winners of the competition were announced at a virtual prize-giving ceremony held on 5 November 2020. The competition took place online this year due to Covid-19 and this impacted on the number of participants.

Teaching mathematics

“Because the competition was moved online, we lost a disproportionate amount of learners from disadvantaged backgrounds. We did leave the option of writing at school open but most schools were closed during the first round (and any later would have been infeasible),” said Kariv.

Professors Loyiso Nongxa and Steven Landsburg, two celebrated maths scholars delivered speeches at the event.

Nongxa, a former Vice-Chancellor and Principal at Wits, was the first African Rhodes Scholar to graduate from Oxford University with a doctoral degree in mathematics.

In his address, Nongxa posed a number of questions to the award recipients on the history and subject of mathematics.

“Is mathematics a cultural activity? Is mathematics a language?” he asked. “Is mathematics discovered or is it invented?” He said it was prudent to ask these questions in a quest to better under the subject.

“I do reflect on these questions from time to time because I believe that just reflecting on them we are not looking for correct answers but it will improve how we communicate with others about the nature of mathematics and how we communicate with others about the nature of mathematics. Maybe it may lead to a better understanding on how people who do mathematics, approach what they do,” he said.

Landsburg, an author and Professor of Economics at the University of Rochester congratulated all the winners.

“I want to congratulate you because you entered the competition, which tells me you probably enjoy maths and that means you have some extraordinary opportunities. If you want to, you can build your life around mathematics. One way to that, but not the only way, is to be a mathematician working at a research institute or a university,” he said.

Landsburg said knowledge of mathematics is beneficial in almost all careers and is key to problem solving.

“Like with all adventures it is exciting, but even better than that, it is an adventure with a purpose because doing mathematics makes the world a better place. Somebody invented negative numbers that made it possible for someone else to invent banks. Even if you become a plumber or a doctor or an entrepreneur, your mathematical skills are going to serve you well because mathematical skills are thinking skills.”

The awards were made in five different categories, middle primary, upper primary, junior secondary, senior secondary and undergraduate.

Two Grade 12 learners competed in the undergraduate category and made it to the top five. Rupam Ghosh from British International College came fourth place in Gauteng and fifth overall in the undergraduate category. Andi Qu from Saint John's College won second overall prize in this category and first in Gauteng.

The competition allows participants who were in the top 10 of a specific category to enter the next category the following year, said Kariv. Sharp is donating their latest calculators to all the winners.