Why the Bangladesh Mathematical Olympiad is so special this year
Bangladesh is currently taking part in the International Mathematical Olympiad (IMO) in Cluj-Napoca, Romania. The first IMO contest was held 59 years ago in Romania.
One might ask: “What is special about the Bangladesh Mathematical Olympiad?” First, the Bangladesh Mathematical Olympiad (BdMO) is run by young people. It is an organization where the teachers/trainers are selected on the basis of great technical expertise and the organizers are not senior people whose understanding of education is mooted in the 1970s.
It is also a voluntary organization. This filters out ego-driven personalities. Consequently, it is able to select students that represent the best of Bangladesh. The BdMO is therefore in some sense a proof-of-concept exercise: It tells us what Bangladeshis can achieve if unhindered by the petty politics of society, academia, and the political arena.
It is very comforting that the BdMO national team has done mind-bogglingly well over the past few years. Last year, Bangladesh was 26th in the world, among 111 countries. Bangladesh beat countries like Canada and Germany.
Bangladesh was the top country in South Asia, the top country from the developing world, the top country from Muslim majority countries apart from the highly advanced countries, Iran and Kazakhstan. Bangladesh also had the top-scoring student from South Asia -- Asif Elahi -- for the second year in a row.
Surprised by Bangladesh’s performance, the UK national coach, Dr Geoff Smith, looking very puzzled, asked me last year: “What did you guys do differently this year?”
Similarly, the Indian coach, who several years ago laughed when I told him “we will beat you one day!” and who told me several years ago “Bangladesh will never beat India,” said the following.
He told me without any sense of shock: “You are tops. You are above us.” This was before the exams were even fully graded. The lack of shock was perhaps because we had already beat them two years earlier. This time instead of shock, the sentiment was therefore more of dismay. Bangladesh received 111 points in 2017, and India received 90 points -- a huge difference.
This point gap is seven times the total country score of Nepal -- which received three points in total. For comparison, Myanmar received 15 points and Pakistan received 58 points.
In Bangladesh, amongst the community who understood the gravity of our recent achievements, there was astonishment. Professor Kaykobad, perhaps the most esteemed academic in Bangladesh, was left speechless. Professor Saleh Tanveer of Ohio State University, perhaps the most distinguished Bangladeshi mathematician, was overjoyed by emotion.
Professor Zahid Hasan of Princeton was ecstatic. My own father, a former economics professor, Badiul Alam Majumdar, cried.
What this shows is that if the right system is implemented where egos are non-existent and quality is rewarded, Bangladesh can be world-beaters. This should not be surprising. A country that prizes learning like Bangladesh and which has a rich genetic pool of 160 million people should do very well.
It is surprising though, given the tremendous impediments that are placed in the way of promising Bangladeshi students, that they can still shine brilliantly.
One reason why Bangladeshi students like this do well, and why more senior Bangladeshi students and academics don’t shine so brightly, is that these students’ lives have not yet been interrupted by the structural inefficiencies of Bangladeshi higher education.
Because most of the math olympiad students go off to well-known places like MIT or the University of Cambridge, it will also not be surprising if they turn into globally recognized academics, researchers, and creative people in the future.
The challenge for us in Bangladesh is to bring some of this ego-less math olympiad culture into mainstream academic life, so that less extraordinary students can also shine bright and beautifully.
I have, in my own small way, tried to implement some of this culture at BRAC University.
As a consequence, students from all over the country, from BUET, from the University of Dhaka, come to our classes at BRAC University.
And my students have been going off to study at the best places -- places nobody expected private university students to reach -- such as McGill and the University of Waterloo, to work in subjects ranging from theoretical physics to machine learning.
These and other students have done the first blockchain thesis in Bangladesh, are applying machine learning to finance, and investigating early universe models using string theory. These self-motivated students represent what can be done by injecting math olympiad culture into higher education.
I hope everyone will inject some math olympiad vaccine into their own lives in this month of World Cup fever. Our young 2018 math olympiad students are unfairly tasked with carrying on their young shoulders the expectations of their families, friends, and millions of Bangladeshis.
The IMO is an outrageously difficult exam. Most university mathematics professors can solve a few, in any of the IMO questions. Replicating last year’s result will be extremely challenging.
We therefore hope on July 13, when the IMO results are announced, that instead of flying the colours and flags of World Cup countries that Bangladeshis cannot even visit because of the visa restrictions, you will be flying Bangladeshi colours and cheering the Bangladesh Mathematical Olympiad team.
Mahbub Majumdar is a professor at BRAC University and the National Coach of the Bangladesh Mathematical Olympiad Team.