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Medals in their bags

With more support Brazilian teams reap rewards in the international scientific Olympiad

illustration by Laura Daviña on pictograms by Otl AicherThe performance of students from Brazil in various scientific Olympiad made a great leap forward in quality in 2008. Unlike the poor performance of the country in international rankings in science, math and reading, a group of Brazilian teenagers, the vast majority from private schools, gained never-before won medals in competitions abroad. Take the example of the 39th International Physics Olympiad, held in Hanoi, Vietnam, between July 21 and 29. Brazil got its first silver medal, won by Guilherme Victal Alves da Costa, 16, a third year high school student in a private school in São Paulo. Parana student Alex Atsushi Takeda won a bronze medal. Four hundred high school students from ninety countries took part in the Olympiad. Gold medals were awarded to 46 students, 47 won silver and 78, bronze. “We were on an equal footing with countries like Spain, Belgium and Switzerland and below the United States and some Eastern European countries”, said Euclydes Marega Júnior, a professor from the Physics Institute of São Carlos of the University of São Paulo (USP), who coordinated the students” preparation.

Brazil also had good results in the 49th International Math Olympiad held in July in Spain; it won six medals, five silver and a bronze, and was 16th place in the world ranking out of the 103 countries taking part, as represented by 549 young people from all over the world. “We had never before had such a consistent team performance, although we’ve won gold medals on occasions”, said teacher Edmilson Motta, from Etapa College in São Paulo, one of those responsible for training the national group. The country also had its best performance in the International Informatics Olympiad since it started taking part in the competition in 1999. All four students in the Brazilian team in its 20th edition, held between August 16 and 23 in Cairo, Egypt won bronze medals. “It’s not usual for all the students sent by a country to win medals”, says Ricardo Anido, a professor from the Computing Institute at the State University of Campinas (Unicamp) and the person responsible for training the Brazilian team. The Brazilian students who took part in the 40th International Chemistry Olympiad held in July in Budapest in Hungary brought back four medals (one silver and three bronze) and achieved their best-ever performance in the competition, by beating countries like the United States, France, Japan and Denmark. With this result Brazil rose 11 places in the general classification relative to the previous Olympiad held in Russia.

There was nothing accidental about 2008’s good results. An important fact is that support for the Brazilian Scientific Olympiad, from which the representatives for international tournaments are picked, has been growing. An example of this is the Carlos Chagas Foundation, which since 2006 has been the sponsor of the Brazilian Informatics Olympiad, which has allowed the number of participants to double over the last few years – this year there were 12,000 competitors, compared with the 7,000 of 2007. In 2005, the National Council for Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq) started to issue a specific public call notice every year in support of such initiatives. Although the money (almost R$ 1 million in 2007) is shared out by several initiatives it is a fact that regular support for the Olympiads has been created. “The result means that the competitions have become more sophisticated and gained more visibility”, says Angela Cunico, coordinator of human and social sciences of the CNPq and the person responsible for the public bid notice. “We’re concerned with supporting the Olympiads that have a national character and encourage student and teacher improvement”, she says.

The objective of the organizers of the Brazilian Scientific Olympiads is to identify new talent, awaken interest in the disciplines earlier and, of course, promote the respective careers. This is especially important for areas that no longer attract as many students as they used to, like computing science. “But if not everyone goes to work in the IT area that’s not a problem. If they all become doctors or engineers who have computing knowledge that’s also good”, says Ricardo Anido, a professor from Unicamp.

With more support the organization of various Brazilian Olympiads has managed to overcome its voluntary nature to become professional. To create a championship on a national scale is not an easy task. Generally, there is a first phase in which thousands of students sit a test in their own schools, which is overseen by their own teachers, with the material being sent to the Olympiad’s organizers. A cut-off mark selects the best, generally a few hundred, who go on to the second phase. This happens in the states themselves but this time the test is overseen by the Olympiad organizers. Preparation of the team that represented Brazil in the International Physics Olympiad shows how the organization has managed to advance. Until last year the Brazilian champions were automatically chosen to represent the country in international and Spanish-American tournaments. But as from this year an extra preparation phase has been introduced in which the 12 students with the best marks in the national Olympiad spend 6 days at the USP Physics Institute of São Carlos (IFSC), receiving theoretical and practical training for the competitions abroad. “It was the first time we had done this and it has already reflected on the performance of our team”, says Professor Euclydes Marega Júnior. “In addition to the training itself there is an important psychological factor. The students spend almost a week away from home and do not feel the pressure so much when they are in the competitive environment of the international Olympiads, which are generally held in a foreign country”, says Marega.

Five levels
Of the 12 who take part in the training, only the 5 best are chosen for the international Olympiad. The rest fight for the four places to represent Brazil in the Spanish American Olympiad that is held in Morélia, in México, between September 28 and October 3. The Brazilian team won three gold medals and a silver, in addition to first place in the overall classification. For the first time Brazil won 3 gold medals in this tournament in which 68 high school students from 19 countries took part.

The 80 best students in the Brazilian Informatics Olympiad also gained the right to a week’s training in the Unicamp Computing Institute. The 20 best students from this group took part in a more advanced preparation course for the international Olympiads. But the improved performance is also down to other reasons. Selection is divided into five levels of difficulty and attracts students from the sixth year (former 5th grade) of elementary education. As a result, a student can take part in the Brazilian Olympiad from 11 to 19 years old, moving up through the levels of difficulty. Another differentiating factor is the engagement of former participants in Olympiads in the preparation of the questions. “We have several PhD students who help us set the questions. And it’s common for those who’ve been to the Olympiads to do very well in the programming marathons, events also organized by the Brazilian Computing Society, but directed at university students”, says Ricardo Anido.

The intensive student training for the international and Spanish-American mathematics Olympiads was recently reinforced. Professors who, when they were adolescents, took part and won medals in math Olympiads are helping the new generation of talent. Selection starts with more than 100,000 participants in order to pick the 50 prize winners of the Brazilian Olympiad. Of these the six best are chosen to take part in international championships. The preparation of those selected is done in São Paulo at the Etapa High School. “The average age of our representatives is 16, because only high school students can take part. In other countries where there is a 12 year school education period there can be competitors who are 19”, says Professor Edmilson Motta.

The Brazilian Math Olympiad is a joint project of the Brazilian Mathematics Society (SBM) and the Pure and Applied Mathematics Institute (Impa). If it is left up to the efforts of the SBM and Impa, the participation of students from public schools in the Brazilian Olympiad is going to grow. In 2005 the two institutions, linked to the ministries of Education (MEC) and Science and Technology (MCT), started to organize the Brazilian Public Schools Math Olympiad (Obmep). In the 4th edition of the tournament, which was held this year, 18 million elementary and high school students registered in 40,377 schools. According to Ildeu Moreira, the person responsible for the Department of Popularizing and Dissemination of Science and Technology at the MCT, one of the objectives of Obmep is to bring about an improvement in the teaching of mathematics and encouraging new talent. “How much the Olympiad means as a stimulus can only be assessed over the long term. But it will soon be clear how much it is attracting young people to the areas of science and technology”, he said. In addition to winning medals the students with the best performance compete for 3,000 Junior Scientific Institution scholarships, worth R$ 100 a month, to carry on studying math.

Schools from Fortaleza
There is a common denominator in the profile of the students who do best in scientific Olympiads. The vast majority come from private schools, even though a good number of students from public schools take part in the selection stage. The poor quality of Brazilian public education helps explain this phenomenon, although it is common for students from technical schools to stand out and not all private schools enter their students. The experience shows that the schools that are actually committed to preparing their students for the Olympiads, by offering them specific lessons outside the normal curriculum, are those that get the best results. The most curious case is that of the Brazilian Biology Olympiad: 80% of those taking part and almost all of those selected to represent Brazil in international tournaments came from two private schools in Fortaleza, Ary de Sá Cavalcante and Farias Brito, which make an effort to train their students for scientific Olympiads of every type. In the same way, teaching networks like Objetivo and Etapa have training programs and offer scholarships to students who do well in these tournaments. Rivalry between private schools can be healthy, according to the organizers of the Olympiads, provided their strategies do not overstep the mark. “There are schools that authorize students to miss school so they can dedicate themselves to preparing for the Olympiads. I don’t think that’s right”, says Ricardo Anido, from the Unicamp Computing Institute. Dedicating themselves to tournaments does not usually bother the students. “They almost always do well in the university entrance exams and it’s not unusual for them to do well when they get to university. Furthermore, a medal won in Olympiads usually qualifies them to go on to higher things”, says Euclydes Marega Júnior. In 2006, student Thaís Macêdo Bezerra Terceiro Jorge, from Fortaleza, won a gold medal in the Spanish-American Chemistry Olympiad and last year a silver medal at the International Chemistry Olympiad in Moscow. Such victories were worth points when she tried to get into the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), in the United States. Today she is a student in the institute’s Chemistry Department.

The good news is that as from this year the amount of the CNPq public bid for support of the Olympiads is going up from R$ 1 million to R$ 1.5 million. As a result, in addition to the traditional competitions in math, physics, chemistry, astronomy, biology and robotics, which were in dispute for the public bid notice and were selected, the first History Olympiad will also be held in Brazil. Claudia de Moraes Russo, a professor from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro and the person responsible for organizing the Brazilian Biology Olympiad, is celebrating. “It’s going to be possible to improve our publicity and attract more students”, says Claudia, referring to the 6th edition of her Olympiad which will be held in 2009. Although it does not have the same tradition as other Olympiads, biology has also made some achievements. In the two last Spanish-American Olympiads the Brazilian team has managed the same result: one gold medal, one silver and two bronze. In the international competition held in Mumbai, India, in July, Pedro Bessa from Ceara won a first ever bronze medal. The victory was particularly sweet because in the 2007 tournament in Canada, Brazil was unable to send a representative. With a week to go to the Olympiad the ministries of Education and Science and Technology, which had promised air tickets to the biology team students, went back on their word alleging that they were not students from the public school network. This year the organization got support from other sources for the trip.