DUBAI // The competitors sat poised at long, bench-like desks eyeing one another. Pencils sharpened and fingertips ready, they hunched over their equations, eager to submit an answer at the fist sign of a fleeting Eureka! moment.
The question was projected to the front of the room: "Mohammed walks upstairs one step at a time. Diana walks upstairs two steps at a time. Walid, who likes to show off, goes up three steps at a time. If each person starts with his or her left foot on the first step of the stairs, the first step on which all three will put their right foot is -?" Using electronic responders, the students whispered to their teammates and locked in their responses.
The answer was; It never happens. This is mathalone - a contest of skill, wit and numerical acumen. Thirty-four teams from local high schools and universities went to the University of Wollongong in Dubai (UOWD) yesterday to prove their mathematic mettle in the first intra-school competition. "I'm in computer science and we have [a different] competition but we don't have anything for maths," said Mohammed Watfa, a computer science professor at UOWD, who organised the event.
"I thought we needed something in the UAE that would gather all the universities." Prizes for contestants included laptops, phones and iPods. Some problems required logic to sort, others quick calculation. "This is the first time some of these students will have been able to get together and meet each other from other schools. For high school students, they're going to see what they can expect from university-level mathematics," Prof Watfa said. He hoped that the competition would prove popular enough to become an annual event.
The mathalone was also very competitive, he said. "I hope to send one of the teams to represent the UAE at a competition internationally," he said. Rob Whelan, the president of UOWD, said the university might spearhead efforts to push the competition into local high schools. "In my previous job, one of the things we did that was really beneficial was to develop and expand the competition into high schools so kids who do have a keenness for maths don't get treated as nerds. They get treated as heroes."
The mathalone was held amid increasing concerns about maths skills among local youth. Last week, the director of the Sharjah Higher Colleges of Technology decried the state of education, saying government schools were producing graduates "deficient" in key skills such as mathematics, science and languages. His sentiments echoed those of other administrators, including Kim Wilcox, the Michigan State University provost who visited his school's Dubai campus in 2008.
Indeed, some contestants yesterday found the going easier than others. "It was kind of easy, at least for the first-round stuff. That's stuff we were doing at the end of high school," said Aditya Philip Mathew, 19, who is in his second year at Michigan State Dubai studying computer engineering. "I would like to see a bit more logic." Amir Abdel Monem, 15, and his classmate Neda Ghaedi, 16, both said they were at a loss during some of the more difficult questions. The grade 11 students at Victoria International School said they were pleased with their results, despite being disqualified from the second round after finishing 11th out of 34.
Prof Watfa said there were too few mathematics majors entered, and so the problems focused on intellectual questions that could be answered by anyone with a maths-related degree. "It's not only for mathematicians. It's also for engineers, people who are studying economics," he said. "They are more intellectual questions. Not too advanced. It's not calculus." By the second round, the contestants had been pared down and the questions toughened up.
Mohit Daga, 21, a fourth-year electronic engineering student and Ankita Lamba, 19, a third-year computer science student, both from Birla Institute of Technology and Science, better known as Pilani-Dubai, won the competition. "We weren't expecting it actually," said Miss Lamba, who credited their success to teamwork. They said the competition had helped to inspire their studies. "When we heard about it, we went to the library to brush up on basics," she said.
Prof Watfa said he hoped that such competitions would inspire more local graduates to reconsider the importance of maths skills. "We try to make it fun. We make people interested in mathematics by showing how it's applied in real life." For example, he said, the competition's logo includes an equation that could be solved to read "We love maths". Coaches, professors and teachers were relegated to the hall outside. As questions were shown to his students, Zaheer Siddique, a maths teacher at the Emirates National School in Abu Dhabi, scribbled the solutions to each of the problems on a white sheet of paper.
He said: "The questions I'd expect most students to be able to attempt with a minimal background in mathematics. That doesn't mean they'll get the right answer but they can at least make sense of it. I like the way the different questions can be approached from a different point of view." He was happy with the maths skills he saw in his students, but added that he was fortunate that most of them were raised in families that included engineers and doctors.
"For me, I think the familial background has one of the biggest bearings on the abilities of the students. If they come from an educated background and are around people with education then they have more interest in education, as you'd expect."
Mr Siddique's team beat all the other high schools and came within a point of winning one of the top three positions overall.
Answers at bottom
1. Tickets can only be ordered in bundles of 6 or 10. The minimum number of ticket bundles that are required to purchase exactly 52 tickets is:
2. Normally the train between Dubai and Sharjah drives at an average speed of 90kph. One day, the train was delayed a little. Because of this, the average speed of the train was only 70kph, and the train arrived four minutes late in Sharjah. What is the distance (in kilometres) between the stations of Dubai and Sharjah.
3. There is a water cask with three different water taps. With the smallest tap, the water cask can be filled in 20 minutes. With the middle tap, the water cask can be filled in 12 minutes. With the largest tap, the water cask can be filled in five minutes. How long in minutes does it take to fill the water cask with the three taps together?
1. You walk upwards on an escalator, with a speed of 1 step per second. After 50 steps you are at the end. You turn around and run downwards with a speed of 5 steps per second. After 125 steps you are back at the beginning of the escalator. How many steps do you need if the escalator stands still?
2. A maths camp wants to hire counsellors and aides to fill its staffing needs at minimum cost. The average monthly salary of a counsellor is $2,400 and the average monthly salary of an aide is $1,100. The camp can accommodate up to 45 staff members and needs at least 30 to run properly. They must have at least 10 aides, and may have up to 3 aides for every 2 counsellors. How many counsellors and how many aides should the camp hire to minimise cost?
a) 18 counsellors and 12 aides
b) 27 counsellors and 18 aides
c) 35 counsellors and 10 aides
d) 12 counsellors and 18 aides
Round 1: 1. (Answer B), 2.(Answer B), 3.(Answer C), Round 2: 1. (Answer A), 2. (Answer D)
Some of the answers given in the original version of this article were incorrect. The answers on this page have now been modified.