A Perplexing Stigma

It is a well-known phenomenon that there is a stigma around math. Whether this is the result of a lack of appreciation of the problem-solving nature of math or this is another chapter in the nature vs. nurture debate, most students are not particularly enthusiastic about the subject. Of course, adequate numeracy and good problem solving skills are essential to not just an individual's growth, but also the social-economic development of society. The stigma, as a result, prevents many students with incredible potential in the subject from realizing their potential, which is quite unfortunate.

While there are other organizations that target math enthusiasts in order to provide them with resources to develop their skills in the subject matter, few attempts to help mainstream students cross the chasm to overcome the stigma and realize their potential in math. CSSMA was founded on this latter principle, that we reach out to every student in Canada and encourage them to think about math in a different way, to encourage them to appreciate math as not just an academic subject, but also an art, a sport, and everything in between. To achieve this goal, we organize competitions, enriched with creative activities, that aim to make math fun for all students. Through this, we help develop students' thought processes and problem solving skills, which are skills that can be applied to various disciplines, and in turn, help them achieve greater academic success.

At the same time, we also see the need to challenge strong math students. The strongest math students should not sit bored in class, but rather, be provided with a stimulating environment to explore advanced concepts or engage in extension activities/problems with other strong math students. This idea of exploration and teamwork is among the fundamental educational philosophies of the CSSMA. We want to make math fun, exciting, and interesting for all! To do this, we need to change the way that students think about math, ie. mathematical thinking.

What is mathematical thinking? We have come up with a list of possible answers. The list below is in no ways exhaustive:

  • Using something already known to do something new both in and out of mathematics
  • Using a variety of structured approaches
  • Able to deal with frustration
  • Able to come up with interesting questions and extensions/ideas that might not work
  • Stating hypotheses and checking it
  • Thinking outside box/trying different ways to a problem
  • Understanding reasoning behind formulas
  • Ability to communicate mathematical ideas with others
  • Open to ideas and confidence in one's own ability
  • Appreciation of mathematical beauty and simplicity
  • Openness to ideas and motivation in general
  • Ability to apply ideas in different contexts (approach novel ideas with previously mastered concepts)

Why Competitions?

It's not hard to see that a properly designed math competition can challenge students to use their mathematical thinking in all of the ways named above, and more. Therefore, we believe that we can ameliorate the stigma surrounding math and math education by creating unforgettable, engaging competitive experiences for students. We believe that understanding at least as important as memorizing. For this reason, our contests are designed not only to test students' knowledge of particular mathematical concepts, but also their ability to apply those concepts in creative situations and think critically about how to solve complicated problems.

For some of our competitions, we also aim to give students the experience of the inquiry-based learning and the joy of discovering something for themselves. In general, this involves innovative activities through which students' creativity can come to life. For these activities, usually there exist significant sequences of sub-questions that lead to the big question's solution. The students are then encouraged to explore these sub-problems by asking questions and trying things out to see how things work out. The contest organizers, of course, provide some motivation and hints to help guide the students' thinking processes. In situations where teamwork is allowed, students are then encouraged to discuss ideas among themselves and use mathematical thinking to arrive at their solutions. In almost all situations, multiple different solutions are possible, and it's how the students arrive at their solutions, not the final answers themselves, that's most important to us, the contest organizers.