“Beating India in education? In mathematics? I cannot believe it!” said Professor Mohammad Kaykobad, one of Bangladesh's most distinguished scientists, and member of the Bangladesh Mathematical Olympiad Committee after Bangladesh beat India at the International Mathematical Olympiad (IMO) in 2015.
The IMO is one of the most prestigious and challenging academic contests in the world. This year it was held in Thailand. The contest is held over 2 days. Each day consists of a 4.5 hour exam. Around 100 countries participate. Each team consists of 6 students and the total number of people involved in the 12 day event is about 2000 people.
Most PhD mathematicians cannot solve its tougher problems. In 2005, when Bangladesh first joined the IMO competition, many esteemed mathematics professors were dismissive. They did not believe that Bangladeshi students could solve any of the problems. Bangladesh received 3 points out of 252 points that year. This year, one student solved 4 problems and one student solved three of the six contest problems. Bangladesh had 1 silver medalist, Sanzeed Anwar, and 4 bronze medalists, Adib Hasan, Asif Elahi, Sabbir Rahman and Sajib Akter Turjo. Bangladesh's total score was 97. India's was 85.
Our performance on the IMO is indicative of future stardom. Last year for example, 3 out of the 4 winners of the “Nobel Prize” in mathematics, known as the “Fields Medal,” were previous IMO gold medalists.
Why is the Bangladesh Mathematical Olympiad such a singular success amid the sea of failing educational initiatives in Bangladesh? First, it is a purely volunteer initiative. Nobody gets paid. This prevents harmful people from becoming involved. Second, it has attracted extraordinary people with incredible passion and commitment. Professors Mohamad Kaykobad and Zafar Iqbal and other committee members showed great initiative in getting the Mathematical Olympiad started in Bangladesh. Munir Hasan has tremendous commitment and is an outstanding organiser. Professor Jamilur Reza Chowdhury has been tremendous in shielding the effort from outside influences. Then there are many selfless volunteers who helped with the organisation including our previous students. Finally, there is the extraordinary financial support of Dutch Bangla Bank and Prothom Alo's crucial logistical and media support. In other countries the Mathematics Olympiad is financed by the government. But because of incredible support from Dutch Bangla Bank and Prothom Alo, we can run the Mathematics Olympiad without external funding.
Many of our students have now flooded the world's best universities. We have sent multiple students to MIT and one from Kushtia Zilla School to Harvard. These and other students will eventually create a mathematical and scientific culture in Bangladesh. Many of them are now beginning PhDs in mathematics related subjects and inspiring other outstanding non-olympiad students to do the same.
I have been the National Coach of the IMO team for the past 10 years and I have found that my most important role has been to simply believe in the students and design training programs which assume that they can understand anything. Unfortunately, in Bangladesh the best students are ignored and not nurtured. The mathematical olympiad is the most successful model of turning Bangladesh's best students into socially conscious world-beaters. That's why Bangladesh can now beat India, not in just some cricket match, but in the most epic and meaningful match – that of education.
The writer is the National Coach of the Bangladesh Mathematical Olympiad Team. He is a mathematician and his research field is string theory and cosmology. He is a professor at BRAC University.