SU students rule the roost at SA Mathematics Olympiad for universities

[Article by Wiida Basson-Fourie: Media & Communication, Faculty of Science]

For the fifth year in a row, Stellenbosch University (SU) engineering student Ralph McDougall made it into the Hall of Fame of the ASSA South African Tertiary Mathematics Olympiad (SATMO).

Ralph, who is currently a third-year electrical engineering student, first made it into the Hall of Fame in his Grade 11-year, and finished joint-first in Grade 12. In 2019, he again made it into the Hall of Fame, then sole first in 2020, and this year joint-first with a score of 18 out of 20. The question paper comprises 20 relatively short “give the answer only” problems, to be solved in two hours.

Another two SU students also made it into the Hall of Fame this year: Jean Weight obtained a score of 15 out of 20, and Danielle Kleyn 12. They are both first-year students in the BSc mathematical sciences programme.

Dr Dirk Basson, coordinator of the Olympiad at SU and a lecturer in the Mathematics Division, says a record number of 36 SU students participated in this year’s competition. Nine of them obtained a score of ten and more, which places them in the top 30 out of the 215 students that participated. With these high scores, SU was ranked first amongst the competing universities, including University of KwaZulu-Natal, University of Cape Town, University of Pretoria and the University of the Witwatersrand.

Ralph says the problems posed in the Olympiad are usually original, and do not come from a set syllabus: “It is unlike any other exam. Through participating in Maths Olympiads, one becomes accustomed to analytical thinking and solving unconventional problems. I believe this is a tremendous help for succeeding in your university studies.”

The South African Mathematical Foundation (SAMF) administers a number of Mathematics Olympiads, including the SA Mathematics Olympiad, the SA Mathematics Challenge, the PAN-African Mathematics Olympiad and the International Mathematical Olympiad. The SAMF website also contains a wealth of Olympiad resources in the form of training manuals and former typical Olympiad problems.

This year SU and other South African universities will also compete for the first time in the Simon Marais Mathematics Competition on 9 October 2021. Dr Simon Marais was an SU alumni and physicist who became a prominent contrarian asset manager in South Africa and later Australia. He maintained a life-long passionate interest in mathematics and mathematical problem solving after completing a PhD in Theoretical Physics at Cambridge University in 1991. On 26 February 2015 he passed away after a short battle with cancer.

The competition consists of two three-hour long papers, written in the morning and afternoon respectively. Register at before 10 September.

Students who want to participate in any of these Olympiads can send an e-mail to Dr Dirk Basson at​.

Photograph: Ralph McDougall