Po-Shen Loh visits American High School

Math Club places in contest, wins lecture from math professor

Jenna Edra

Staff Writer

The opportunity to hear a lecture on March 10 from Po-Shen Loh, Carnegie Mellon University professor and national coach for the USA International Math Olympiad team, first began last summer with Math Club Vice President Sujay Kazi (10) and a contest on Expii.com. Created only last year, Expii.com involves crowdsourcing information, allowing anyone to post explanations about math and science. Professor Loh, one of the site’s founders, describes Expii as “the interactive Wikipedia.”

“During the summer of last year, I went to Awesome Math at UC Berkeley, a summer math camp for students who are talented and interested in mathematics,” Kazi said. “Po-Shen Loh gave a lecture there, and at that time, he introduced the Awesome Math Students to Expii. I was quite active on the website early on, so I found out about the contest simply by being on the website.”

Schools or organizations and individuals participating in the Expii contest were ranked according to total number of “fame” points, gained by contributing to the relatively new website (ex: by writing articles). As a prize for the highest ranked participants, members of the Expii team, consisting of students, scientists, and coaches, visited the top ten schools to congratulate them and deliver talks. Top individuals also received free Expii t-shirts.

Professor Loh explains the idea of the 15 puzzle, which involves sliding all numbered tiles into order, and relates it to permutations. “I thought of something that everyone can understand because they’ve played the 15 puzzle before, but nevertheless you get to see the proofs, you get to see neat arguments, and even get to see how to prove things that are impossible,” Loh said.
Professor Loh explains the idea of the 15 puzzle, which involves sliding all numbered tiles into order, and relates it to permutations. “I thought of something that everyone can understand because they’ve played the 15 puzzle before, but nevertheless you get to see the proofs, you get to see neat arguments, and even get to see how to prove things that are impossible,” Loh said.

Sujay Kazi was the initially the only participant from American High until he introduced the contest to others. Afterward, Math Club officers Aadeesh Shastry (9), Rohan Aora (9), Lily Bhattacharjee (10), Shaival Divatia (12), and club member Daniel Ma (12) joined the contest. Out of at least 20 participating schools and organizations, American High School placed 5th with 2019 fame points. Out of over 100 participants, Kazi placed 5th with 1356 points, Aora 32nd with 170, Divatia 50th with 106, and Lily Bhattacharjee 98th with 43.

“At first, I was the only person working toward the contest, and I had good individual standing,” Kazi said. “But I didn’t really think our school would do anything. And then, some time in early November, about 3 weeks from the end, I noticed that AHS was actually 12th place overall, just from my points. I then decided to let everyone know, since it would be a shame to lose such an opportunity that was reasonably close without even trying. We were roughly 300 points behind 10th place (Harker), so I was quite surprised when we quickly pulled ahead. We kept contributing, and we pulled up to 5th place! I was pleasantly surprised by that.”

Among the top participants in the contest, American earned the lecture from Professor Loh last week. There was an element of surprise, as students did not know the exact subject of his lecture beforehand. Ultimately, Loh spoke about combinatorics and permutations for about an hour.

“I always like to give a talk in a high school where the topic is not rocket science, but it’s something that almost nobody is familiar with,” Loh said. “So it’s quite fortunate that math is just so broad that there are many topics that schools just don’t have time to cover. And it’s not the teachers’ fault at all–it’s just that math is too broad.”

The professor had three key objectives, or aspects which he hoped that students gained from his lecture.

“The first thing I always want students to get out of a lecture is that math and science are actually fun and interesting,” Loh said. “So that’s my first objective. I hope that that happened. My second objective after that is hopefully they got to see a glimpse of some mathematics that they normally wouldn’t get to see in school. The third objective is that that glimpse made complete sense, and that they would someday be able to explain it to someone else.”

Based on the positive student response, Professor Loh succeeded in meeting all three objectives.

“Professor Loh’s lecture was eye-opening,” junior Michael Tan said. “He introduced a new concept within the mathematical field of combinatorics, teaching us the notion of even and odd permutations. I liked how Professor Loh went from positing a seemingly unrelated problem and then explaining it with this new strategy in combinatorics. He has a great ability to allow mere high schoolers to understand advanced math concepts. His presentation was captivating, and everyone in the room was fixated on his words. Professor Loh’s lecture is an event that I would gladly experience a second time.”

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