Evangelizing for Math: An Interview with US Olympiad Coach, Dr. Po-Shen Loh

November 15, 2016

Image of US Math Olympiad coach, Dr. Po-Shen Loh

The national coach for the US Math Olympiad team sits down with Reasoning Mind to discuss the competition, what math means to him, and how his online project—Expii.com—is generating more excitement for math.

Earlier this summer, while hundreds of American athletes were preparing to compete in the 2016 Rio Olympic Games, a group of six American high school students were busy winning gold medals in the 57th International Mathematical Olympiad in Hong Kong—one of the most rigorous problem-solving competitions on the planet. The combined score of these six “mathletes” helped the U.S. secure its second consecutive first-place finish at the Olympiad, breaking a two-decade losing streak.

Recently, Reasoning Mind sat down with Dr. Po-Shen Loh, head coach for the US Math Olympiad Team and self-described “math evangelist,” to discuss what math means to him, how the Olympiad competition works, and why he hopes his new project—Expii.com—will multiply the number of people worldwide who like math.

Find excerpts from the conversation and check out the full video below!

Mathematicians tend to think about math a little differently than the average person. What does math mean to you?

To put it really concisely, I would say that math is creative thinking—creative thinking and problem solving in a quantitative, analytical environment. I often look at the world, and even if I’m looking out the window and thinking about traffic on the freeway, I might actually try to understand what’s causing the traffic on the freeway. And when you look at it this way, you’re not doing any arithmetic necessarily, you will eventually, but it’s not just an arithmetic problem. You’re trying to figure out what to “arithmetic”—what to add, what to subtract, multiply, and divide. And I find that mindset very interesting, and basically every week I look at some aspect of the world and try to see if I can find a mathematical insight, and if I can, I share it with the world through Expii.com/solve—a collection of fun math puzzles and problems.

“To put it really concisely, I would say that math is creative thinking …”

What led you to found Expii.com and how does it work?

Well, I have a personal goal which I’m trying to achieve—I like multiplying—so I’m trying to multiply the number of people worldwide who like math and science by ten. When that became my life goal, I started to think ‘How can you achieve this?’ and I decided to go through the technology route. There will be two billion [smartphones] in the world by the end of this year, maybe by the end of next, and this caused us to rethink—how could we reinvent the way somebody can learn if they have a one-on-one internet device? We didn’t dare work on the younger ages, which is what you guys are specializing in, as that takes significant background and understanding—we decided to work from sixth grade up.

Ultimately, Expii.com is made up of two parts—one part is centered around increasing interest in mathematics because I think that’s essential, and the second part is a learning tool. If somebody is interested in learning, Expii.com will help to guide them and direct them to the correct lessons, sort of in the same way that a GPS mapping device works, like Google Maps. If you’re trying to learn algebra, for example, Expii.com would adaptively route you through questions and lessons as you go. The whole system is free, which is part of the goal to boost interest in math and science around the world…we thought it would be most effective if there wasn’t a price attached.

“I have a personal goal I’m trying to achieve—I like multiplying—so I’m trying to multiply the number of people worldwide who like math and science by ten.”

As the national coach for the US International Math Olympiad Team, tell us what that process is like, what your role is, how we find these kids, and what impact the competition has on their lives.

This is a competition for which in the United States, the participation is run by the Mathematical Association of America (MAA), which is a nonprofit in D.C. My role with them is that I’m basically just a national cheerleader for the United States team. I say that because the students are incredibly good, and essentially by the time I meet them, they have to be better than me or else we’ll do horribly at the actual contest. So I often travel around the country and I try to work on ways to promote interest in mathematics, so that ultimately we’ll have more people entering selection competitions run by the MAA. For example, at the first round, there are several hundred thousand students who participate in something called the AMC 12 or AMC 10 (American Math Competitions). As students pass through these selection rounds, we ultimately find out who are the six who are going to represent the U.S. Along the way though, many, many people get exposed to non-routine, creative problem solving through these competitions, and I think that that helps to show them that math is more than just doing a test.

And the impact on the actual people themselves? Well, first of all, as people get to see these creative puzzles, I think that improves them overall. But also at the higher levels, when people start to come together for training camp, you are bringing together people who have similar backgrounds in terms of interest in mathematics—possibly very different backgrounds outside of mathematics—but then that creates friendships and partnerships and collaborations that last a lifetime. And eventually many of them work together to help create further innovations for the world.

We want to thank Dr. Loh for taking the time to be interviewed, and especially for being a keynote speaker at our recent math conference in Dallas. To register for or learn more about the math selection competitions run by the MAA, visit http://www.maa.org/math-competitions. And to test your knowledge on some challenging math puzzles, make sure to visit www.Expii.com/solve!

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