Community of people crazy about math — in a good way

Lyudmila Lazareva guides us through different buildings of the Regina mathematical camp that she has put in place. The style of the excursion that she has chosen for us is as follows. First, she brings us to a class full of students working on problems with several teachers. Second, she asks for one of the teachers to come speak to us. We meet this new person, and continue our visit till the next one. Lyudmila doesn’t wait for us to ask questions about herself — she wants to show us as many of her colleagues as she can!

There are three hundred students in the camp and several dozens of teachers. We are here for only half a day and meeting all teachers is mission impossible from start. This text is a humble attempt to give an impression of the human atmosphere of this summer camp, through three portraits of teachers at the camp, coming from Russian cities separated from each other by thousands of kilometers but all, without exception, in love with mathematics, united by a common spirit of the « Olympiad movement ». 

Everybody thinks that doing lego is engineering, but engineering is brains, and these brains have to be developed

Trufanova Elena Anatolyevna teaches mathematics in Kaliningrad, « another connected component of Russia », in the middle of Europe. Although she doesn’t feel isolated. « There is a community of people who are a little crazy about mathematics — in a good way, and we do not disconnect regions. I know Lyudmila Yurievna, I do not care where she lives. We meet in Tatarstan today, and then she will go to Kamchatka tomorrow and do things there! It is much easier to fly and to take a train than before, financially as well! In math, the Olympiad movement was beginning separately in regions, and today we feel very united. Maybe, because there is less and less of us?… »

Many students that have studied in Kazan math summer camp come back here as teachers after their last school grade — they miss the atmosphere of the summer camps. But once the university life becomes intense, most of their students disappear from the horizon. « Yes, our community is an island, there is a kernel of motivated people. And some people come to and go, but even those who come to the shore are ours! », concludes Elena. 

Elena has three generations of mathematicians in her house: her mother and her sister are mathematicians, and two of her daughters work with Elena in her mathematical center in Kaliningrad. « We have a family business! », Elena laughs.

For a long time, Elena has been teaching mathematics to olympiad physics students. « Mathematics is needed, otherwise this car just doesn’t roll —  they can’t solve physics problems without math! I see both physics and mathematics worlds, and I constantly run from one camp to another, I am a runner! », she laughs. « So, naturally, I want to connect these two beauties. Children there are so intelligent — they can do literally anything! » 

Elena’s dream is to help the growth of a new generation of good engineers in Russia — that’s what she does at summer schools that she puts in place. 

Everybody thinks that doing lego is engineering, but it is not true! Engineering is brains, and these brains have to be developed. This year we have started a first engineering program for children, between math and physics. It felt like a battle every day — as if the children would grill us, would it work or not? We had not only math and physics classes but also constructing. Students would construct not from plastic or metal blocks which were already prepared for them but would cut all the details themselves from scratch, calculate them all from the start. Our team wanted to check — does the idea of such a camp would work in itself? And it worked! For myself, it was 4 out of 5, and we still have work to do. But I am reassured since the children said — please write me down for next time in engineering group! » 

Nature which is inside a person will always grow through them

Liubov Vladimirovna Baeva teaches mathematics in school N°10 in Naberezhnye Tchelny, the second largest city (after Kazan) in the Republic of Tatarstan. Since forty years, she participates in Olympiads with her students. She tells me that this year, she came to the Kazan summer camp with a bus full of 53 students! Lyudmila, sitting nearby, says that Liubov is very humble and that what she should say is that all the Olympiad winners from Naberezhnye Tchelny come from her classes. Lyudmila explains that for a school teacher, it is very rare to work with children on mathematical Olympiads — most of the teachers are overloaded with the work they already have and do not have time to prepare ambitious problems. Liubov is one of the exceptions.

I ask this woman with a name that means love in Russian what is her secret in teaching successfully Olympiad mathematics to children.

First of all, I am interested in such mathematics myself. If I want to teach students, I also have to show them that I can do it myself! I wouldn’t say that I was a strong olympiad girl when I was young — I won one of the places in the city once in school… but not much. Today I participate in many math olympiads organized for teachers —  in Kazan and in Moscow for example. And we have to work a lot with students, especially today when competition is so high now. But once you start working — you get results immediately.

I am probably not alone but I am very strongly against forcing children. I think that the nature which is inside a person will always grow through them. If parents push their child to do mathematics, and the child doesn’t have any inclination to it, they won’t work anyway. For example, I had a boy in my class who was very talented, played violoncello and solved well math problems but finally he decided to be a journalist — that’s what he wanted. And now I have a girl who is working hard in my math class but… she is drawing at all pauses! She is trying to do mathematics… but I see that what she really wants is to draw. 

Although often they don’t know yet what they want, and find motivation in the process. I think about two of my students — both girls — they were not much interested in mathematics before coming in my class. But once they have started working a lot, they started developing not only mathematical strength but also motivation to do mathematics, they simply got hooked!”

An environment where girls could never stop doing mathematics

Gerasimova Lyudmila Nikolaevnais a distinguished teacher of Russian Federation, working in the city of Krasnoyarsk on the Yenisey river in Siberia, known for one of the biggest water dams in the world. She has met Lyudmila Lazareva several years ago when they collaborated together on the All-Russian mathematical game in Krasnoyarsk. Since then both Lyudmilas collaborate regularly, and Lyudmila Gerasimova comes to the Kazan Summer Camp and brings along several of her own students — they have already earned prizes in All-Russian math olympiads and now come here to teach new generations of mathematicians to solve problems.

Lyudmila Gerasimova presents herself as an organizer of mathematical Olympiads in her city. « In particular, »  she says, « I have invented three Olympiads myself! » With Vladimir Arnold’s Olympiad for children between 9 and 12 years old and the Krasnoyarsk Cup, a three-day-long Olympiad tournament, Lyudmila has put in place a Mathematical Olympiad for girls

 In the beginning, girls are in the first rows of winners and prizes in math Olympiads, I see it in my experience. And then, at puberty, girls get a sort of a hood on their brains, you see? They stop being mathematicians, they become models and so on… If they do not see any example in front of them, and do not receive any appropriate encouragement around them, we can loose them… and until they are 28, we do not see them anymore! After 28, the hood is taken off, and everything is fine, sometimes they even come back!

When boys start winning somewhere, a girl might say: I do not want to do it anymore, I am not the best. I wanted to create an environment where girls are the best, and where they could never stop doing mathematics. It is an open Olympiad— anyone can come — and around 500 girls from thirteen to fifteen years old participate in it every year.”

When asked where Lyudmila finds time and energy to organize Olympiads, she laughs : « But that’s such a pleasure! Finding time, finding energy? It’s just wonderful! Of course, there is practically no pay and there is lots of work but it’s so interesting! You see… working with such intelligent children is always better than any qualification improvement courses in the world! »