Brazil’s search for talented young mathematicians

. May 31, 2019
education math olympiad brazil standardized test

Brazil has one of the most unequal societies in the world. In a 2018 review of the country—entitled “A broken social elevator”—the OECD pointed to the fact that six in ten Brazilians doubt that personal effort or study is enough to elevate one from poverty to a comfortable standard of life. It was found that, in Brazil, real social mobility can take up to nine generations, far more than the OECD average of five. The international organization suggested that social mobility could be fostered if Brazil improves the efficiency of its public spending. The review recommended that education spending be shifted from the tertiary level to pre-primary, primary and secondary levels. Vocational education should also be extended to adults, particularly focusing on the unemployed.

</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Called to Congress to explain why universities should limit their so-called “discretionary spending” this year, Education Minister Abraham Weintraub showed a series of charts illustrating what he called historic problems with education in Brazil. He said that kids with educated parents have better academic results than those whose parents are </span><a href=""><span style="font-weight: 400;">functional illiterates</span></a><span style="font-weight: 400;">.</span></p> <h2>Brazil&#8217;s mathletes</h2> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">But, it’s not all doom and gloom. Brazil has several initiatives aimed at finding talented students and stimulating their interests. The </span><a href=""><span style="font-weight: 400;">Brazilian Olympiad in Mathematics for Public and Private Schools</span></a><span style="font-weight: 400;"> (OBMEP) simultaneously tested more than 18 million young students last week, in what is thought to be the largest standardized education test in the world. The OBMEP aims to identify young kids and teens with a natural aptitude for math and encourage them to pursue further study in areas of technology and the exact sciences. </span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">An initiative of the Brazilian Applied and Pure Math Institute (</span><a href=""><span style="font-weight: 400;">IMPA</span></a><span style="font-weight: 400;">), with support from the Brazilian Math Society (</span><a href=""><span style="font-weight: 400;">SBM</span></a><span style="font-weight: 400;">), OBMEP is funded by the Ministries of Education, and Science, Technology, Innovation and Communications. Originally a test for public school kids that began in 2005, the competition was opened to students from private schools in 2017. A record number of schools across Brazil registered for the test in 2019—54,830 schools applied the exam last week, spanning 99.7 percent of Brazilian territory.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">The top 5-percent of students will sit a second exam in September (schools are offered support and training to prepare students for the test), and ultimately, around 6,500 medal winners will be invited to weekend advanced math classes (</span><a href=""><span style="font-weight: 400;">PIC &#8211; </span><i><span style="font-weight: 400;">Programa de Iniciação Científica Jr</span></i><span style="font-weight: 400;">.),</span></a><span style="font-weight: 400;"> taught by undergraduate math students in public universities all over Brazil.  </span><span style="font-weight: 400;">Forty-seven thousand young Brazilians had completed the PIC by 2017, all receiving a monthly stipend of BRL 100 from the National Council for Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq). Many currently complete the PIC online, as funding to support transport and accommodation for students that live far away was cut in 2017.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Medal winners say that the PIC approach is very different to the way they learn math at school.  They love being in a room with colleagues that share their interest in math, and said that in mainstream schools, the teachers&#8217; time is often taken up with maintaining order, therefore reducing the time for learning. </span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Claudio Landim, the general coordinator of OBMEP, said the PIC &#8220;has an extraordinary social impact,” and that success can “open doors” for young Brazilian students. “The exam allows us to detect students with a talent for maths. Their participation in scientific initiation programs allows them to socialize with other talented youths, with whom they have shared interests.” He said the young people learn </span><span style="font-weight: 400;">“problems and subjects that they are not taught in school.” At universities, they are “stimulated to develop their particular talent, and are recognized for this effort,” he said.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Research shows that as well as stimulating learning among medal winners, OBMEP can impact the grades of the entire classroom. Researcher Diana Moreira looked at the impact of  “recognizing performance: how awards affect winners’ and peers’ performance in Brazil” for her doctorate at Harvard University. Analyzing data of five million students in 170 thousand classrooms with OBMEP winners across Brazil, she found that the test scores of colleagues improved by 20 percent in subsequent years of testing. According to her study, this has the potential to increase the university participation of Brazilian students by 10 percent. </span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">In fact, some universities reserve college places for medal-winning youngsters. Unicamp, for example, reserved 90 places in 22 courses for young people that have a demonstrable talent in areas of math and science, as part of the Campinas university’s mission to elevate social inclusion. </span><a href=""><span style="font-weight: 400;">Two hundred and eighty-three valid applications were received, nearly 60 percent from public school students</span></a><span style="font-weight: 400;">.</span></p> <h2>The role of Bolsa Família</h2> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Luiz Vasconcelos Júnior grew up in a rural part of the state of Goiás. Money was tight at home, and the family lived off the proceeds of selling snacks, the odd day of work his dad managed to find as a handyman, and Bolsa Familia payments.  An </span><a href=""><span style="font-weight: 400;">analysis of OBMEP in 2017</span></a><span style="font-weight: 400;"> revealed that 1,288 young people whose families received Bolsa Familia had won medals in the preceding six years of the competition.  A further 465 received “honorable mentions.”</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">The Bolsa Família social welfare program, established in 2003, was lauded for helping to bring millions out of abject poverty in Brazil, by offering financial compensation (albeit very little) to families whose kids are vaccinated and attend school. By </span><a href=""><span style="font-weight: 400;">2012</span></a><span style="font-weight: 400;">, one-third of Brazil’s school-going children received the benefit.  So, rather than being a simple cash transfer system, there was the added goal of increasing the human capital of Brazil’s poorest children, attempting to impact intergenerational poverty by boosting school attendance.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">A 2010 review of the program’s impact on education threw up some interesting findings: children from families receiving Bolsa Família were less likely to drop out of school than those from families with similar incomes; families with a working mother were more likely to continue longer at school.  The report suggested that just getting these kids to go to school is not enough, and any real break in intergenerational poverty would require “an investment in quality public education, especially at the basic level.” </span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">By the time Luiz had finished secondary school, the 17-year-old had already accrued 6 OBMEP medals, two in </span><a href=""><span style="font-weight: 400;">OBFEP</span></a><span style="font-weight: 400;">, a similar competition to find youth with a talent for physics in Brazilian public schools, and an honorable mention in OBM and in OBF (Brazilian Physics Olympiad).  He won an all-expenses-paid scholarship to study at IME (Military Brazilian Institute) in Rio de Janeiro, one of Brazil’s highest ranking engineering universities. He said he was given the scholarship “on the basis of the medals I had won.” </span></p> <h2>Oh, the humanities!</h2> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">OBMEP is one of many initiatives in Brazil, to select and support talented youngsters. There are others in the field of physics, biology, chemistry, and robotics, with similar structures. Last month, </span><a href=""><span style="font-weight: 400;">Science in the School</span></a><span style="font-weight: 400;"> was launched, a BRL 100 million joint initiative by MEC and MCTIC to modernize the teaching of exact sciences in Brazilian public schools, by upskilling teachers with innovative teaching practices. </span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">However, many are critical of this explicit focus on the exact sciences, and would like to see similar actions for students with a natural aptitude for humanities. Mr. Weintraub said last month that public funding should stimulate areas of knowledge that will have a benefit to society, suggesting that areas such as philosophy should be self-funded, citing Japan as an example.   </span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">The Brazilian Physics Society immediately repudiated his comments. In a </span><a href=""><span style="font-weight: 400;">statement</span></a><span style="font-weight: 400;">, the board said that “to neglect philosophy is to neglect the knowledge domain of a person, regardless of their specialty.” They added that the proposed funding cuts would represent a “tragedy in an attempt to improve our society.”</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Education has dominated recent headlines, as around one million people took to the streets all over Brazil on May 15, protesting cuts to education budgets. A further (although smaller) demonstration took place on May 30.

Sarah O'Sullivan

Sarah O'Sullivan is an Irish journalist, based in Rio de Janeiro. Sarah specializes in writing about education issues in Latin America. She uses tweets about global scholarship options open to students from Latin America.

Don`t copy text!