1. What is the IMO-project for Palestine?
Dr. Sari Ghanem, founder and chair of the Al-Khwarizmi-Noether Institute (AKNI), made a program proposal towards making Palestine prepare and participate in the International Mathematical Olympiad. First, we will present briefly the International Mathematical Olympiad (I.M.O.), and thereafter, the requirements needed in order to make Palestine participate in the I.M.O. according to AKNI. Then, Dr. Ghanem will explain why Palestine needs to participate in the International Mathematical Olympiad. The implementation of this program will be carried out by the Al-Khwarizmi-Noether Institute under Dr. Ghanem’s supervision. In particular, AKNI decided to create and prepare a Palestinian team who would participate in the I.M.O., and this includes:
- selecting the best students in the country through a Mathematical Olympiad (M.O.) which AKNI implements;
- training the selected students who achieve the best performance in the Mathematical Olympiad test, in the summer through math Summer Camps, and along the year through worksheets, tutorials online, Skype discussions, etc …
2. What is the International Mathematical Olympiad?
The International Mathematical Olympiad is the highest and most prestigious mathematical competition for high school students. According to the website of the International Mathematical Olympiad, “The International Mathematical Olympiad (IMO) is the World Championship Mathematics Competition for High School students and is held annually in a different country.”.
The I.M.O. has as well a set of regulations and traditions; the I.M.O. Advisory Board ensures that those are respected. Some of those traditions and regulations could be found, for instance, on their website : “The official IMO flag was introduced at IMO 1995 in Canada along with the IMO logo. The flag is white with the IMO logo in its centre. It became a tradition that the IMO flag is passed to the next host at the end of the Closing Ceremony.”, “The IMO hymn was introduced at IMO 1997 in Argentina.”, and “At the moment the IMO database contains information about 16227 contestants.”.
The procedure for a country to apply to participate in the I.M.O. can be found on the I.M.O.‘s website; the formalities are very simple. However, the country applicant needs to have “plans to select and prepare its national team for the event”, and should “send an Observer to the next IMO” before starting to actually participate.
The I.M.O. normally takes place in July, each year in a different country. The team, with one or two team leaders, should go to the hosting country at the expense of the participant country (AKNI will take care of the expenses for the Palestinian team), and should follow the procedure set by the host country. The competition takes place over two days: 3 problems each day with four hours and a half to answer them. The team is composed of 6 students, working individually on the problems. If a member of the team is absent, the absent member gets 0.
Although the I.M.O. competition takes place over 2 days, the team needs to be there for about two weeks. On one hand, the team should attend the opening and award ceremonies, etc … On the other hand, the team leaders participate in the processes of voting on the problems for the I.M.O., grading the I.M.O.,, and translating the I.M.O., from English to the native language of the team if this is needed, as well as translating the solutions of the team to English, when those are not written in English. Hence, the team leader needs to be scientifically competent, and trustable. According to this project proposal, Dr. Sari Ghanem would be the team leader for Palestine, on a purely voluntary basis of course, and would choose himself the second team leader who accompanies him, when this is needed.
3. The requirements for Palestine to participate in the I.M.O. according to AKNI
In order to participate in the I.M.O., Palestine needs to have a National Mathematical Olympiad, a Summer Camp to prepare the students for the International Math Olympiad, and additional training of the selected team during the year. These should meet the standards as described in the following:
3.1. National Mathematical Olympiad. Palestine needs to have a National Mathematical Olympiad that meets the standard of the National Mathematical Olympiad of the countries which participate in the I.M.O.. This means that the National Mathematical Olympiad should be composed of two to three rounds. As Palestine would be a beginner participant, Al-Khwarizmi-Noether Institute suggests two rounds as follows:
3.1.1. The first round. The first round is accessible to all students below the national high school examination level, the “Tawjihi” or any equivalent exam, without any restriction on the age or the Grade level. The participation in this first round is voluntary, and therefore, the schools should advertise well for this exam – for example by showing to the students the benefits of the Mathematical Olympiad: how far it can lead them, and the opportunities it can create for them, etc… – so as to get the best students to actually participate. The exam of this first round should consist of multiple choice questions, graded by a computer.
3.1.2. The second round. The second round is accessible for about 200 students who achieve the best performance in the first round. This second round would be the National Mathematical Olympiad. It should be a written exam graded by a human, and not a computer, as opposed to the first round. It should be a difficult but simpler version of the I.M.O. problems. For instance, it could contain three problems, and the students will have three hours to answer them.
3.2. The Summer Camp to prepare for the I.M.O.. Based on the results of the National Mathematical Olympiad, as described in Section 3.1.2, about 45 students should be selected to participate in a summer camp which trains them for the International Mathematical Olympiad, and they will be split into three groups: beginner, intermediate and advanced levels. The Summer Camp should be for two full weeks for each level, and for at least 5 full days of formal instruction a week and informal activities on the weekend.
In the Summer Camp, the students get to discover the mathematical problems at the I.M.O., prepare for these problems, and do an exam at the end of the Summer Camp. Based on the performance of the students in the Summer Camp, a team will get selected from the advanced level, composed of 12 students. These 12 students will follow a training for the I.M.O. along the year, however, at the I.M.O. in the summer, in a different country each year, only 6 students would compose the final team and take the exams.
The other students among the 12 who followed the training during the year and who were finally not in the team composed of 6, could then participate in the I.M.O. the year thereafter; they will be stronger as they have already followed a training at an earlier stage, and they would have served as substitutes for students in the team who could not make it at the end, due to unforeseen circumstances (personal, medical, or administrative ones, etc …), or due to their change of opinion at the last moment. Same holds for students who participated in the Summer Camp and who were after all not selected to be part of the team; these should be young well chosen persons, so that they could participate in the year thereafter. As an experienced professional Olympiad trainer informed me: “In general, the earlier you start with students, the stronger the students will ultimately be.”.
3.3. The team training for the I.M.O. along the year. The team composed of 12 students is selected among the best who participated in the Summer Camp, described in Section 3.2. The policies of training of the team along the year differs from one country to another, depending on the seriousness of the country to obtain good scores, and on the level of the students and the education they receive in their high school curriculum. Serious teams, such as the Iranian one for instance, train the team full time the whole year – as in the Summer Camp, but extended over the Fall and the Spring semesters -; thus, the students do not attend high school during that year, and catch up on the exams during the summer after the I.M.O.. However, these students know that they will either obtain medals, or high scores, at the I.M.O. which will gain them admissions and fellowships to attend the highest mathematical institutions of the world to carry out their Ph.D.s; therefore, they would have gained much more. However, Palestine is a beginner participant country, and cannot be expected to meet this standard; there are many other beginner participant countries which do not prepare that much along the year.
Therefore, for the team composed of 12 students, AKNI proposes for the Fall and the Spring Semesters, two hours of training per week during the weekend via a teleconference guided by trainers, and two weeks of intensive training in a Spring Camp just before the I.M.O.. As far as AKNI’s understanding is concerned, this should be sufficient to get Palestine to participate in the I.M.O..
4. Why should Palestine participate in the I.M.O.?
In my opinion, I, Dr. Sari Ghanem, think that Palestine must participate in the I.M.O. for many very important reasons, part of them are the following:
4.1. Create research pure mathematicians at the international level. Unlike many other countries of the world, I have never encountered in my whole life a Palestinian pure mathematics research Professor at the international level. In fact, at this time, the Palestinian society does not have any mathematical research tradition and therefore, it does not understand nor appreciate serious mathematics. As a result, all good Palestinian students go into medicine, or into engineering if they fail to get admitted in the former, and even among these, rare are those who pursue a career in research at an international level; there is no scientific research culture in general among Palestinian communities, even among the diaspora outside Palestine. This is indeed a problem and it is more severe in mathematics among other disciplines; I meditated it for many years to examine its roots in order to solve it. I came, with others, to the conclusion that the preparation and participation in the I.M.O. is a necessary and big part of the solution to this problem.
Indeed, the preparation for I.M.O. would help to implement a tradition of teaching and learning mathematics at the international level, outside the high school examination system often based on “by heart” teaching methods widespread in the country. The Mathematical Olympiad is clearly very different from the high school curriculum, and would give room for critical and creative thinking, and on a much higher standard.
The I.M.O. will induce, on one hand, recruitment – by this, I mean signalling out the potentially strong persons in mathematics in high school – and on the other hand, and most importantly, will induce preparation for the I.M.O. through Summer Camps to train those who would eventually succeed in the National Mathematical Olympiad. It is then the training for the I.M.O., that would hopefully implement partly some of the tradition of learning and teaching mathematics. Hopefully, some of these students would then go into mathematical research later on, having found a system where they could demonstrate their high skills and abilities, and get awarded for it through prestigious medals and so forth. This is particularly important among Palestinian communities where most of the respect is given for holding the title of a medical doctor; through the medals which the Mathematical Olympiad winners receive, talented students in math can possibly get the recognition from the society.
Hence, the preparation and participation in the I.M.O. could help create and establish, on the long term run, a mathematical community in Palestine. However, not everyone participating in the I.M.O. should become a research mathematician; they could perform well and decide to work in the high administration thereafter. At least, we hope to have formed a group of bright persons motivated to work constructively towards creating a better society in their country, Palestine.
4.2. The participation in the I.M.O. opens opportunities for Palestinians to advance scientifically and promotes the feeling of belonging. As a former graduate student myself who have attended an Ivy League university, I know that the scores of students at the I.M.O. serve as strong criteria for the U.S.A. leading universities to recruit students for Ph.D. programs in mathematics, granted with funding provided by the university. I saw during my Ph.D. studies students at Yale, Princeton, Harvard, M.I.T., etc … coming from all over the world and who did not have a letter of recommendation from a well-known research Professor, yet, they obtained an offer because they participated in the I.M.O. and obtained decent scores.
When Palestine does not participate in the I.M.O., bright students are condemned to never make it to these universities – at least, not in a way where they would have a bright future and impact on their surrondings -, because, furthermore, well-respected research Palestinian mathematicians from whom the student could possibly obtain a letter of recommendation are inexistent, as of today.
The participation of Palestine in the I.M.O. is a message for all the country, not only to the participating students, that if they are bright and work very hard to prepare for the I.M.O., they could prove themselves as being bright in the I.M.O. since Palestine would be participating, and consequently, have opportunities at the highest international level, without having to pass through letters of recommendation of local research Professors who are unfortunately inexistent as of today. It is about building a system, where bright hard-working individuals could go further, and not be condemned to permanent scientific failure imposed by their surroundings. Hence, this should increase the competition in the country in a constructive way, and thus, advance more the society.
Also, for students who get attracted by the I.M.O., this could give a meaning to their life, as they would have found a way where if they work hard and succeed, they would have opportunities at the highest international level. A person who obtained a medal at the I.M.O. wrote to me “I know Olympiad completely changed my life. When I was introduced to math, I was able to create a new self.”. I also know that when I participated in Classe Préparatoire – the equivalent in France of the Mathematical Olympiad training system –, it changed my life in a completely positive way, as I discovered something beautiful, tremendous, and challenging, which is mathematics. I was stunned by the beauty of mathematical structures, and could develop a sense of community and belonging with the other strong students and trainers participating in the training (let me point out, that in the students’ evaluations of the Summer Camp 2016, I could see clearly in their feedback that the Summer Camp has developed in them this feeling). In particular, this taught me how to feel as a citizen, to want to make the community, the society, and the city, a better place for everybody, and part of it is that I took the initiative to carry out this project.
Some of my classmates, having performed extremely well in the national competitions in France, did not necessary pursue mathematics, but they were finally well-educated formed individuals who got recruited to work at the highest administration in France, working towards running their country in an efficient and smart way. Same would be true for Palestine, which is clearly needed, especially at this time.
4.3. Humanize the Palestinians and give them universal human rights. There is unfortunately a whole set of persons, some of which I have encountered in the U.S.A. for instance – and unlike as one could expect, some of them are mathematics research Professors at the highest international level –, who think that Palestinians do not really exist, and that “Palestinian” is an identity which was “constructed solely to justify terrorism against Israel”; I am of course firmly and clearly against both the terrorism and this obviously wrong stated opinion, which is a result of a propaganda politically motivated by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Furthermore, there is a whole set of clichés and prejudice about Palestinians, circulating even among those who believe to be sympathetic of the Palestinian cause, where Palestine would be a very dangerous place full of “terrorists”.
The participation of Palestine in the I.M.O. will help destroy this obviously wrong racist cliché which presents the Palestinian as a “terrorist” or a “potential terrorist”, which is unfortunately present almost everywhere in the international culture, and more fiercely in the American leading culture, through Hollywood movies, newspapers, popular press, and printed journalism, etc … where the Palestinian is presented repeatedly as a “dangerous” and an “irrational” on one hand, and as an “incompetent Real Bad Arab” on the other, see . These clichés have clearly a huge impact on how, for instance, the American society, and other cultures, treat the Palestinians: treating them as a people apart, denying them opportunities and cultural participation, such as in science and for instance, in mathematical research.
It is also a problem, that we, Palestinians, would be keeping ourselves collectively inferior and participate actively in spreading out these racist clichés about us by not participating culturally and scientifically with other countries of the world, and therefore, helping out in keeping this racist model, constructed by Hollywood and funded by the U.S.A. government for instance, running about us. Our participation in the I.M.O. would help instead to show that Palestinians are, like other people, humans capable of science and thought, like any other culture in the world. Consequently, it would be less easy to treat the whole Palestinian people collectively as “potential terrorists”, as unfortunately it is the case today in the U.S.A., the world’s leading power, when one sees Palestinians doing serious mathematics, and participating culturally in mathematical research at the international level. Same holds true if we participate at the international level in other aspects of human culture.
4.4. Pure mathematics as an important cultural aspect. Pure mathematical research is a fundamental and an important component of a culture. When this is inexistent, beyond the fact that the people cannot prosper, it also leads to the absence of a cultural identity of which one could be possibly proud of, and therefore, this generates persons in the society who are much less motivated to construct themselves and their country. Consequently, this pattern continues.
Through the participation of Palestine in the I.M.O., not only this would create for the world a model of the Palestinian, that is beyond the racist framework of the “terrorist” presented in Hollywood movies, but it would also create a role model of the Palestinian for the Palestinians themselves, to which the Palestinians could relate to and get inspired from, to make valuable achievements.
Science is an important part of culture, and when a whole people make no contributions to scientific discovery and achievement, one cannot speak about an equal independent country of the world, because clearly science is needed. Thus, pure mathematical research is definitely an important element to build a country.
 Jack Shaheen, Real Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People, Interlink Publishing Group, July 2001 (revised and updated edition published by Olive Branch Press, June 2009).