1. Why I.M.O. training Summer Camps?
Participating in the International Mathematical Olympiad creates opportunities for math training Summer Camps and activities where the participants, who are students before higher education, learn a lot of maths and are challenged to think critically and creatively as the Olympiad problems are not curriculum based, rather, they aim to encourage creative thinking and investigation among the students. Even if few students in a given country end up going to the I.M.O., many more get involved in the preparatory activities; this helps to implement a culture of teaching and learning mathematics. Furthermore, through the medals which the Olympiad winners receive, talented students in math can possibly get the recognition from the society; this is particularly important among Palestinian communities where most of the respect is given for holding the title of a medical doctor.
The I.M.O. training Summer Camps will also enable to locate strong and gifted students and help them go study mathematics at top world universities. In fact, in Palestine, mathematics is underdeveloped at the university level. Besides, there is not one single Palestinian in the world who attained the level of a research full professor in pure mathematics at an international level, and there is almost no one in applied mathematics. One of the reasons, is the fact that all good Palestinian high school students want to go into medicine and if not, into engineering; thus, the math students in universities are often the weak and unmotivated ones, and the few good ones are slowed down by their surroundings. Furthermore, even among those who go into medicine or into engineering, rare are those who pursue a career in research at an international level; there is no scientific research culture in general among Palestinian communities. For these reasons, middle/high-school is a better time than university to attract Palestinian students to mathematics.
In Summer 2016, the Al-Khwarizmi-Noether Institute organized the first Summer Camp training for the International Mathematical Olympiad in Palestine; it was successful beyond all expectations. By contrast to the math departments in Palestinian universities, the middle-schoolers participating in the Summer Camp were as competent as their French colleagues in similar math camps. Everyone involved enjoyed the experience very much. The middle-schoolers worked in a challenging and interactive way; besides important mathematical tools and ideas, they learned how to be rigorous, raise questions and use their intuition. At the end of the summer camp, they wrote enthusiastic evaluations and asked to do another such camp next summer.
2. The first Summer Camp started in 2016
The first Summer Camp 2016 lasted ten days, for five full days of instruction per week, Monday through Thursday and on Saturday. Fridays and Sundays were devoted to cultural and social activities. It took place in Bethlehem, Palestine.
2.1. The participants.
2.1.1. The two instructors. Dr. Sari Ghanem and Matthieu Lequesne did all the instruction on a purely voluntary basis. Lequesne has much voluntarily experience in math competitions and their preparation. He was the leader of the French team at the International Tournament for Young Mathematicians which took place in Saint-Petersburg, Russia, in 2016 and where France won the first place.
2.1.2. The two master’s students. Dr. Ghanem recruited for this program two female Master’s students in mathematics among the best ones in Palestine: they attended fully the instruction and took notes in the hope that they could teach the program themselves in the future; interacted with the middle-schoolers to help them learn the material covered in the math camp; assisted the instructors and got a lots of advice, help and encouragement to pursue their graduate studies. In fact, in Palestine, almost all master’s students in mathematics are women, whereas almost all math professors at Palestinian universities are men; Dr. Ghanem was hoping to provide these two young women with guidance towards a Ph.D. program and indeed they had several useful conversations and furthermore, Dr. Marina Ville, at University of Tours in France, ended up co-supervising the master’s thesis of one of them.
2.1.3. The middle schoolers. After several failed attempts to organize a national recruitment of the best students in the country, Dr. Ghanem contacted the principals of some excellent schools in Palestine and asked them to each select two students, going into ninth or tenth Grade in the Fall of 2016. He stressed that the main factor of selection should not be the students’ knowledge but their potential and motivation to learn. At the Summer Camp, there were seven boys and four girls; there were both Christian and Muslim students coming out from different places; for example, one student lives in a refugee camp. Lequesne said that these students have the same level as the French students of the same age whom he trains for math competitions in France; and unlike the French students, the Palestinian ones all spoke English! They were extremely motivated: often they were all clustered in one of the bedrooms after dinner, working together on homework problems.
2.2. The contents of the Summer Camp. There were six hours of instruction per day, one session in the morning and one in the afternoon. The classes were interactive and the students learned an amazing amount in so few days. The curriculum was based on lecture notes and books for the preparation to the I.M.O. and included Combinatorics, Algebra, Logic, Arithmetic and Geometry at a beginner level. For the first time, the students were exposed to proofs and understood how to make different types of proof, for example by induction or by contradiction. Before the Summer Camp, they were just using procedures to solve problems without understanding why these work or what is going on; at the Summer Camp, they learned to distinguish between what they know and what they do not know. Towards the end of the camp, they grouped in a few teams and presented results: every student spoke and the exposition was very clear, organized and impressive.
2.3. Extra-curricular activities; informal interaction. All three meals were eaten together and allowed for pleasant and informal conversation between the students and the trainers. After dinner, the group discussed maths, played math games, watched a math documentary, etc … Several social activities also gave everyone opportunities for informal interaction. They were a) a tour of Bethlehem, where the students learned how to use a map and saw a museum in the old city of Bethlehem, b) a visit by four students from the Barenboim-Said Foundation who came out with the administrative director of the Barenboim-Said Music Center in Ramallah, Mrs. Muna Khleifi, to give a concert and have dinner with the participants, c) a visit to the Meet Math Museum at Al-Quds University d) sports at a local college, etc … Dr. Fouad Badran and Dr. Marina Ville visited the camp, talked and encouraged the students.
2.4. Students’ evaluations. The middle-schoolers were asked to write feedback on their experiences. Some of the evaluations the middle-schoolers wrote are:
“You can say that this is the best possibility I had in the 14 years on being on this planet. Before I came to this camp I didn’t even know that there was this amount of math in the world. It didn’t just consist in mathematics. But we also made new friends, [I have] learnt organizing my life and communicating in English.”
“… Matthieu, he was nice as a teacher and also as a friend …”
“this camp was one of the best camps I have ever participated in. I had lots of fun, learned a lot of new and interesting things.”
“the teaching way, the teachers, the place, they were all perfect”
“[At] first I was thinking math is a theorem and you should use it but in this camp I ask myself [if] I should use it I should prove it. I hope there is another camp because in Palestine we don’t get much like these camps.”
“This summer camp was the first camp that included sleeping and learning that I ever joined and it was really a great first experience and I [would] love to join again if I have a chance because I learned a lot of things which I actually never knew about; it was of course difficult at first but I will keep on studying and improving”
The pilot was very successful and worked extremely well from the start. The goal is to find mathematical talent everywhere in Palestine and among Palestinian communities everywhere in the world and to develop it, but there needs to be a mathematical culture in Palestine which touches a larger audience so that talented students could develop in it; to achieve this, Al-Khwarizmi-Noether Institute has identified several directions in which it would like to promote mathematics in Palestine, and the IMO-project proposal for Palestine is one of them. Indeed, AKNI identified a real need for math education in Palestine and also an amazing potential within Palestinian youth.
Furthermore, seeing the Palestinian students doing quality math, destroys the very wrong stereotypes of the Palestinian youth as “terrorists” or as persons who are defined only with respect to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This does not mean to deny the difficult reality of the occupation, but to treat the Palestinian kids as equals, with the same potential and needs as, for example, French kids. In addition, mathematical activities, through their universality, are the best way to do so.
Al-Khwarizmi-Noether Institute organized two Math Summer Camps in 2017 and a Math Summer Camp in 2018, each for two weeks. The Summer Camps took place in Bethlehem, Palestine, and in Beit Jala, Palestine. Unsurprisingly, all the Math Summer Camps achieved their objectives extremely successfully and went very well.