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Fairfax County high school student tests his math prowess in Mexico

Sohail Farhangi posed on a street in Guanajuato. He was there for the Mexican Mathematics Olympiad. ( Olga Cordero-Brana)

Sohail Farhangi loves math: When he gets bored in class, he’ll work on math problems. When he’s at home after cross-country practice, he solves problems for fun.

That’s exactly the kind of student that the American Association for the Advancement of Science is trying to find as part of an initiative that encourages minorities to get involved in higher mathematics.

“It’s important because we have an awful lot of talented students in this country who have not had the opportunity” to be challenged and encouraged for their math skills, said Florence Fasanelli, who directed the new initiative. Students with such a strong interest and ability can easily get overlooked, she said, especially minority students.

So they created a pilot program to identify and foster smart kids — targeting black, Hispanic and immigrant students in particular because they are less likely to already be involved in higher mathematics. Many educators and business leaders worry that young people in the United States are not sufficiently competitive in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Farhangi, a senior at Fairfax County’s Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, was one four U.S. students chosen to compete in the Mexican Mathematical Olympiad this winter after his performance in an elite summer training camp.

Sohail Farhangi helps a young student untangle a rope puzzle at an elementary school near Guanajuato. The “mathletes” visited the school one afternoon and did math-related play with the kids. ( Olga Cordero-Brana)

That meant Farhangi, 18, solved problems like this: “Each pair of opposite sides of a convex hexagon has the following property: the distance between their midpoints is equal to [the square root of three, divided by 2] times the sum of their lengths. Prove that all the angles of the hexagon are equal.” In Spanish.

“It was fun,” Farhangi said. He liked the challenge and seeing how other students solved the problems. He met lots of people, visited museums and other sites in Guanajuato and went to a school to talk with children about math. Though he and the three U.S. students weren’t officially competing, they all scored high enough to qualify for medals, including Farhangi, who would have gotten a bronze, according to the association.

Farhangi started with less math background than most students at Thomas Jefferson. But with the help of a teacher there, he was able to begin multivariable calculus even as he completed his algebra 2 requirement. At first, Farhangi said, no one took him seriously because he was in the lowest-level math classes there, but he quickly caught up and excelled.

He got involved with the Mexican competition after he saw a flier about the training program sponsored by the science-advancement group. He applied and spent 10 days last summer doing math all day long. He and the others know the techniques, the theorems and formulas; the competition is hard, he said, in the way the formula is applied. “It’s usually not straightforward. It’s hidden in some way, or you need a succession of formulas.”

It was tiring to think that intensely all day, he said: “But if you want to get better, you have to work hard.” 

Susan Svrluga is a reporter for the Washington Post, covering higher education for the Grade Point blog.



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