Perse teacher makes a mark at international olympiad

Combining numerical knowledge with a talent for translation was the sum total of Perse maths teacher Vesna Kadelburg’s key role at the International Mathematical Olympiad (IMO) in Norway.

Dr Kadelburg had the tough assignment of being a marker/co-ordinator at this year’s IMO – a prestigious competition attracting the top young mathematicians from around the world – in Oslo.

Almost 600 students from 104 nations took part, with contestants sitting two papers on consecutive days. Each exam lasted four-and-a-half hours and consisted of three very difficult problems, with only the top 20 coming close to solving all six problems and around the top 200 answering four of them.

Dr Kadelburg was invited to be part of the 70-plus marking/co-ordination panel – largely made up of academics and PhD students – due to her involvement with the UK Mathematics Trust in national team training and selection for almost 20 years. She has also been leader or deputy leader of UK teams at several international competitions.

However, there was much more to the job than simply putting a tick or cross next to an answer.

Firstly, the markers/co-ordinators had to try to solve particular problems – which were shortlisted from submissions to the host country’s problem selection committee and voted on by national team leaders – before spending a day developing a marking scheme for the questions.

Once the tests were taken, the papers were marked by the respective team leaders and co-ordinators independently, based on the agreed criteria, with marks awarded for clarity of explanation, not just correct answers.

Dr Kadelburg said: “Being a marker (or co-ordinator) at the IMO is a really interesting role. Usually two co-ordinators look at every script and there are several co-ordinator pairs for each question.

“The team leaders and the co-ordinators then meet to compare their marks and discuss any disagreements. This can lead to some heated discussions, which are mostly resolved amicably, although it is sometimes necessary to call in the Chief Co-ordinator, whose job is to ensure the consistency between different groups of markers.”

Crunching the numbers was only part of the equation for Dr Kadelburg and her fellow co-ordinators though, with participants allowed to write answers for solutions in their own languages.

Dr Kadelburg said: “One might think this is a not a big problem in maths, which is often described as the ‘universal language’. However, at this high level, solutions require careful logic and precise explanations, rather than just calculations.

“Co-ordinators therefore need to try to understand explanations written in a variety of languages and often have to trust the team leaders to translate parts of the solution during the meeting.

“I found it fascinating how much it is possible to follow in a language you speak just a little bit, when you know roughly what you are expecting to read.

“It was particularly interesting to look at solutions written in different alphabets. By the end, I was able to recognise a few key Chinese characters and some Arabic words.

“The co-ordinator group at this event was very international, which meant that we could get help with translations from other co-ordinators. Being a Serbian speaker myself, I was called on to translate papers from a variety of Slavic languages.”

Dr Kadelburg described her week at the IMO as “very intense”, but she hopes to be involved in some way again when the UK hosts the event in 2024.

She added: “We also send teams to several other international competitions, such as the Balkan Mathematical Olympiad, the European Girls’ Olympiad and the Romanian Masters of Mathematics, so there are plenty of other opportunities to get involved further, either as a co-ordinator or a team leader.”


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