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Kirkland resident attends math Olympiad in South Africa
Caleb Ji participated in his first math competition when he was in fourth grade.
Since then, his interest in competing in such contests has grown. Last month, the incoming junior at The Bear Creek School in Redmond traveled to Cape Town, South Africa to participate in the International Mathematical Olympiad (IMO) for high school-aged students.
Although the 16-year-old Kirkland resident — who is originally from Calgary, Alberta, Canada — has been competing for several years and has traveled to various U.S. cities such as Orlando and Las Vegas, this was the first time Ji has participated in an international competition. He was one of six students representing the Canadian team.
About 560 teens were in attendance, representing about 100 countries.
A different type of competition
Ji said during the competition, participants receive six math problems and are given nine hours over the course of two days — or four and a half hours each day — to solve them.
“They come from various areas of math,” he said about the problems.
Competitors can earn up to seven points per question, depending on whether they are able to solve the problem. Points are deducted for mistakes and participants are also awarded partial points for partial answers.
Ji received 21 out of a possible 42 possible, earning a bronze medal. He said the medals are based on how many points a competitor receives, not how they score against each other, adding that he was one point away from a silver medal.
Steven Prokopchuk, the math department chair at Bear Creek, enjoyed math competitions when he was in high school and had hoped he could help his students have similar experiences. He said he entertained the idea of having a student participate in a national math Olympiad competition such as the United States of America Mathematical Olympiad.
“But having a student represent his country at the IMO completely surpassed my expectations,” Prokopchuk said. “I never really expected that it could happen with one of my students. When Caleb told me he was going to the IMO, I was elated. I couldn’t wait to tell other teachers and staff, as well as our division head and head of school. It has been a particularly amazing experience knowing how hard Caleb has worked and knowing some of the challenges he has faced along the way.”
Ji said the IMO competition format is different from other competitions because the latter are short-answer format. Participants know how to solve the problems and they are tested for speed. The IMO problems are long form and competitors usually do not know how to solve them at first and need to use intuition and logic to come to an answer.
“These problems are all proof problems,” Ji said about how competitors need to show how they got to their solution.
Sharing his love for math
Although Ji had been interested in math competitions since his father first introduced them to him in grade school, it wasn’t until he attended a math camp during the summer after eighth grade that he really discovered his love and passion for the subject and the order and structure of it.
“Math can be really beautiful,” said Ji, who started at Bear Creek as a freshman.
Ji’s love for the subject is no secret. Ji’s mother Debbie Ji also noticed the difference in her son’s love for math after that summer camp, noting that he’d had other interests before then, but math now took a front seat.
Prokopchuk, who teaches precalculus and multivariable calculus, has known Caleb for about two years through the school’s math team. He added that during Caleb’s early days at Bear Creek, Prokopchuk checked in with the teen to see how he was adjusting to his new school and saw that Caleb was reading “an extremely advanced book (third or fourth year university text) of in-depth analyses of a variety of sequences and series — arithmetic, geometric, harmonic and various power series.” Prokopchuk said some sections of the text were even beyond his own understanding of the material.
In the past two years, Prokopchuk said he has watched Caleb open up and make friends at Bear Creek.
“Caleb is extremely humble, and as a result, it took some time before others began to realize just how gifted he is,” Prokopchuk said.
He said during math team meetings, Caleb would often complete math problems long before the other members, but wouldn’t let on when he was done.
This eventually led Prokopchuk to look for new resources and questions that “might actually challenge Caleb and help him to grow as a student.” These “diabolical” questions are now referred to as “Caleb questions,” Prokopchuk said.
Caleb also began working with Prokopchuk to teach lessons to the math team.
“Last year during a two-week period our school calls Jan term, Caleb and I co-taught a short course in number theory,” Prokopchuk said. “It was fantastic.”
Keeping it in perspective
While Caleb’s love for math is a large part of his life, Prokopchuk said he tries to make sure Caleb maintains a healthy perspective and does not lose sight of other things such as family, friends, faith and other school work and interests.
“Part of what makes Caleb special is that he is talented in so many subject areas,” Prokopchuk said. “He has been involved in drama and our tennis team, he was a very strong member of our debate team, he is an excellent language student and this year he also wrote a Chemistry Olympiad.”
With Caleb participating in such a prestigious international competition such as the IMO, Debbie said she is happy her son has had the opportunity to compete at such a high level. She said it looks like Caleb would like to compete in the IMO again next year, though she acknowledged that doing so is a large time commitment to prepare in addition to the trip and competition themselves.
To prepare for the competition, Caleb said he has purchased books on the subject and is part of an online community of teens who come together to discuss problems.
“It’s fun,” he said, adding that this type of math is different from what you learn in class.
Caleb, who will be taking Advanced Placement statistics and multivariable calculus at Bear Creek this fall, said he has also made many friends through the competitions and camps he has attended.
In addition to the competition, Caleb said his trip to Cape Town gave him the opportunity to do some sightseeing with his teammates, as well.
“It was a very beautiful place,” he said. “We just had a lot of fun exploring the city.”