Meike Akveld and the Kangaroo
On Thursday, 16 March, around six million enthusiastic mathematics school pupils from 75 countries across the globe will once again be gearing up to take part in the Kangaroo competition. Approximately 400 Swiss schools and more than 30,000 pupils will also be participating in the competition.
Meike Akveld is the chief organizer of the Kangaroo competition in Switzerland and is Vice President of the Association Kangourou sans Frontières (Kangaroo without Frontiers Association). In the following interview, she offers us an insight into the organisation of one of the world's largest mathematics competitions.
You have been the chief organizer of the Kangaroo competition in Switzerland since 2012. How did you get involved?
There is a board that has been organizing the Swiss Kangaroo competition since 2003. It is made up of members from the Deutschschweizerische Mathematikkommission (German-Swiss mathematics commission) as well as others, such as primary school teachers. I started to get interested in the contest when I was still a school maths teacher. So, in 2008, I joined the board and took over chief responsibility for the competition in 2012.
Why was the competition launched?
The aim of the competition is to encourage school pupils to think about maths in a fun way. An additional motivation for them to take part is undoubtedly also the fact that millions of other children are working on the same maths problems on the same day in lots of different countries worldwide.
The competition always takes place on the third Thursday in March. Why was this day chosen in particular?
Choosing a specific day of the year is what turns the competition into something special. The third Thursday in March is a day that, in Europe at least, fits the bill well. It isn't in the school holidays and isn't too close to Easter.
What are the challenges of organising a competition involving millions of participants from all over the world?
The main task is to collate the maths problems that are submitted by the countries taking part. These are then discussed and selected during a two-day conference in the autumn. This international exchange between the countries is tricky because different mathematics traditions and curricula have to be taken into account, but for me personally, it offers a huge added value, as you gain fascinating insights into other teaching cultures.
What criteria are applied to select the problems?
In general, we aim to set original and entertaining problems that participants will enjoy working on and that don't look like conventional school exercises.
Do all the countries that take part receive the same problems?
Not quite. Each country is allowed to swap five problems and adapt them to country-specific criteria, as it is impossible to cater to all the curricula used worldwide. And, naturally, the tasks need to be translated into the different national languages, which allows for additional flexibility.
Are the scores of the countries compared against each other?
No. This is a conscious decision to differentiate the competition from Pisa or the International Mathematical Olympiad, for example. Only the numbers of people taking part are recorded; no scores are compared.
Do you know how many pupils got the answers right?
Yes. But it is very difficult to get all the answers right. In 2016, only 14 of the 27,800 Swiss participants answered all the questions correctly.
Are prizes awarded for special achievements?
Each pupil receives a certificate and a brochure containing the problems and detailed solutions. Those who have got all the answers right receive an Australian gold coin. In addition, small presents are handed out each year.
How does the Kangaroo competition differ from the International Mathematical Olympiad?
The most important aspect for us, as I have mentioned, is to have fun when thinking about maths. In the Olympiad, on the other hand, achievement is a key factor. We work closely with the Olympiad team. For example, we send teachers of children with a flair for maths a letter containing information on the Olympiad, with the request that they forward this on to their pupils.
How would you like to see the Kangaroo competition develop in the future?
I hope that more primary school pupils will get involved, as I believe that the competition would also be well suited to level and that they would enjoy it. And it would also be a good opportunity to awaken interest in mathematics among this age group.