A Math Kangaroo!
A person who couldn't appreciate any form of music would be very unusual. Likewise, there is a strong stigma associated with being illiterate.
Why then should it be acceptable to dislike mathematics or to be terribly weak at it? In the past, writing a mathematics competition might have been seen as a geeky pastime for an elite few -- something like running an ultra marathon. The Math Kangaroo is part of an international effort to change this perception.
Le Kangarou de Math began in France, where it quickly became very popular. From its French beginnings in 1991, the contest spread to countries throughout Europe, Asia and North and South America. Those who like it, like it a lot. Last year, 1,635,789 Russian children wrote the contest.
A one-hour multiple-choice contest, the Kangaroo aims at mass participation. In participating countries around the world, students from grades two through 12 write together on the same day.
The contest's emphasis is on helping students realize that solving math puzzles can actually be fun. Students from different grades write in the same time slot, but answer different questions. These questions begin with problems intended to be very simple, but increase in difficulty until the final questions are very challenging.
Here is a sample showing the level of the first problem for some of the younger students writing the Kangaroo:
1. What is 2 + 1000 + 9?
A) 2009 B) 210009 C) 1209 D) 1029 E) 1011
(The answer is E) 1011.)
On the other hand, the final problem for those writing the grades 11 and 12 section of the contest might be something like:
Fred erases one of 10 consecutive numbers. The sum of the remaining 9 numbers is 2009. What number was erased?
A) 224 B) 225 C) 226 D) 227 E) 228
(The answer is C) 226. The 10 consecutive numbers look like a, a+1, a+2, a+3... a+9 for some value a, which we don't know. If we add these up we get 10a + (1 + 2 + 3 + ... + 9) = 10a + 45. Now one of these numbers, say b, is crossed out. This means that 10a + 45 - b = 2009. Then 10a = 2009 - 45 + b = 1964 + b. Since 1964 + b is a multiple of 10, b must end in a 6. Looking at the possible answers, we conclude that b = 226.
For those interested, this gives 10a = 2190, whence a = 219. One can check that 219 + 220 + 221 + 222 + 223 + 224 + 225 + 227 + 228 = 2009.)
Canada is a newcomer to the Kangaroo game, with the first Canadian students writing in Ottawa in 2001. It has grown slowly, with 778 Canadian students writing the contest last year. Evidently there is room for growth.
The Winnipeg debut of the competition was March 30, 2008 at the University of Winnipeg. Because the emphasis is on participation rather than on elite performance, the Kangaroo fits well with the downtown university's emphasis on access.
Local organizer Valerie Froese partnered with the Department of Mathematics and Statistics and the Faculty of Science to bring the competition to Winnipeg. Mathematicians at the university are sensitive to popularization and in the past have participated in many ventures.
One highlight was bringing Germany's Mathematiksmuseum from Giessen to the Children's Museum. Again, in recent years, the department took the lead in setting and marking the elite Canadian high school competition, the Canadian Mathematics Olympiad. The Canadian problem-solving journal Crux Mathematicorum is also currently housed in the department.
In 2008, the Kangaroo was held on a Sunday afternoon in two rooms of Manitoba Hall. In this first edition of the Winnipeg running of the contest, the university welcomed some 40 students and their caregivers to write papers and view mathematical films, including the acclaimed Flatland, starring Martin Sheen and Michael York.
In addition to participants from a variety of schools, a number of home-schooled children wrote the contest. Students ranged from Grade 3 through senior high, with each grade writing its own competition in the same room in the same one-hour slot. The multiple-choice format allowed the contest to be written and marked in one afternoon. Students were introduced to the university campus, wrote the competition, watched movies and received feedback and certificates. A good time was had by all.
Individual performance is not central to the philosophy of this event. However, at the national level there are some incentives to outstanding participants: In July 2007, a group of five winners and a supervisor from Canada travelled to Romania for a summer Math Kangaroo camp.
This year's version of the competition is set for March 29. Math department members look forward to increased enrolment. Participating, acquiring a taste for mathematical puzzles and taking in some interesting math movies is an attainable goal.
This year, the Kangaroo will again be written and marked over a couple of hours on a Sunday afternoon at the University of Winnipeg. In addition, a free online training class was held Feb. 28 for students in grades three through eight.
Registration for the online class is at www.mathkangaroocanada.com or by contacting Valerie Froese at firstname.lastname@example.org. To register for the Kangaroo Contest, please visit www.mathkangaroocanada.com and follow the links.
Dr. James Currie is professor of Mathematics and Statistics at the University of Winnipeg. He has a doctorate from the University of Calgary and is a specialist in "combinatorics on words" -- part of the mathematical theory of language. In addition to his research work, he has pioneered courses at the university that aim to popularize mathematics via the study of its history. Outside the university, he has taught magic, judo and chess.
The Learning Curve is an occasional column written by local academics who are experts in their fields. It is open to any educator from Winnipeg's post-secondary institutions. Send 600-word submissions and a mini bio to email@example.com.