New Westminster teen behind new school math contest

About 1,500 elementary and middle school students in five Lower Mainland school districts are competing in a new math contest this year.

That might not sound exactly ground-breaking – schools pay money every year for students to compete in contests designed and run by university math departments.

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But this new contest is free and the person behind it is a 17-year-old New Westminster Secondary School student: Waley Zhang.

Zhang, who polished off all of the province’s math and calculus courses before he was done Grade 10 and who has scored among the top five in several Canada-wide math contests, is on a mission.

The Grade 12 International Baccalaureate (IB) student says math gets a bad rap for being boring and repetitive.

But since getting into math contests himself in Grade 7, he’s learned it doesn’t have to be that way, and he wants to pass that message on.

“The idea is that I want to fundamentally change the attitude society has towards mathematics,” he says. “I want to motivate people to think of mathematics differently – engage them in this, I would call it, art of math as problem solving.”

Towards that end, Zhang has founded the Canadian Secondary School Mathematics Association, a non-profit with national aspirations, dedicated to creating “a future where mathematics will be a highly enjoyable subject by the majority of elementary, middle, and high school students.”

Established last year, the student-driven group has launched a number of initiatives, including the Vancouver Math Olympiad, which sees high school teams from around the Lower Mainland get together for lively and creative math competitions, featuring everything from hands-on geometry to casino games.

“I wanted to encourage creative thinking and more hands-on experiences,” Zhang says.

But the Olympiad attracts mostly students who are already excited about math, he says, and he wanted to get to all those other kids before they got the wrong idea about the subject.

Enter the Young Years Program, a contest for students in grades 2 to 8 – entirely run and designed by Zhang and a crew of New West Secondary School volunteers, including program leaders Daniel Li and Perry Ng.

Students in New West, Surrey, Coquitlam, Burnaby and Richmond have already written two parts of the contest, and two more are planned for February and April, with prizes to be awarded for the best cumulative results.

The in-class, paper-and-pencil contest, each installment of which includes a series of questions requiring creative problem solving, is tailored to the provincial curriculum and administered by classroom teachers.

“It’s entirely based on the curriculum, so it can be used as a classroom exercise,” Zhang says.

He first floated the idea with his former gifted-program teacher at Berkshire Park Elementary in Surrey.

“I didn’t know how big it was going to be,” says Paul Allinger, who spread the word about the contest in the Surrey school district. “I didn’t know that he was going to actually have people working under him.”

Most of the students writing the contest, however, are still in the New Westminster district.

The timing couldn’t be better, according to NWSS math teacher Bobby Woo, who acts as teacher-sponsor for a few of Zhang’s initiatives.

“He believes there should be a more hands-on approach, more problem solving, especially with real-life situations,” Woo says of Zhang and his contest idea. “It’s actually great timing because our curriculum is changing this coming fall from K to 9.”

For more on the Canadian Secondary School Mathematics Association or the Young Years Program contest, visit www.cssma.ca.

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© New West Record

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