Q&A: Paul Igodt on Flanders’ Maths Olympiad

Summary

Leuven maths professor Paul Igodt introduces the annual Flanders Mathematics Olympiad, a long-running competition for secondary school students

Bringing maths to life

Paul Igodt (pictured right) is a professor of mathematics at the University of Leuven. He’s one of the founders of the Flanders Mathematics Olympiad (VWO), an annual competition for secondary school children that turns 30 this year.

You and Frank De Clerck from Ghent University (pictured left) recently received a career award from the Royal Flemish Academy of Belgium for Science and the Arts. Were you pleased with that?

Yes, of course I’m happy. But I’d like to stress that the whole team behind the Olympiad – about 20 people – deserves to be celebrated. This award is also for them. And I’d like to mention all the maths and science teachers in Flanders, without whom we wouldn’t be able to organise such a large-scale competition.

Can you tell us how it started, back in 1985?

Competitions between pupils go back a long way. The international equivalent of the VWO, the International Mathematical Olympiad, was first held in 1959. Ten years later, the first Belgian team participated. The members of the team back then were selected by teachers because we didn’t have any national or regional competition – and the results in the 1970s and ’80s showed it. So that was one of the reasons we wanted to start a proper competition inFlanders.

Since 1985, our participation in the final of the international Olympiad has been more successful, with several top-30 finishes. This year’s final, in Thailand, has just ended, and the Belgian team, made up of three laureates from Flanders and three from Wallonia, finished in 56th pace.

What’s the value of the Olympiad?

The academy gave Frank and me the award for our achievements in science communication. That’s an important feature of the Olympiad: It’s an excellent way to present the dry subject of maths – as it is often taught in secondary school – in a vivid and exciting way. The questions our participants have to solve are full of inspiration, and often they are quite tricky – real brain teasers. They are absolutely not like normal exam questions. The Olympiad allows students to see maths from a different perspective.

Take this together with the competition element and the fact that the first round is held at the schools – after that there’s a second and a final round – and you get an event that’s appealing enough for 20,000 students to sign up each year. I think that’s impressive.