Throughout the summer holidays, the UK Maths Trust runs a series of summer schools which aim to teach young adults a little more about maths than they learn at school. Most of them are based in the UK, but a select few are hosted abroad, including a particularly revered one in Hungary. Typically, they last 5 days to a week, and about 40 students attend. They are invitation-only, and invitations are offered to those who perform well in a series of tests in the earlier months of the year. These tests range from the relatively straight forward – hour long multiple choice exams – to the intense – gruelling 3 1/2 hour exams where the goal is to provide solid proofs of up to 6 challenging problems.
I was lucky enough to be invited to one of the summer schools this year, although sadly one of the less high profile ones. To qualify for mine, you “only” had to do well on one of the hour long papers. My week was to be hosted at a school in Leeds, attended by 40 students, 6 seniors (students who had attended a summer school previously and were tasked with looking after a group) and about 8 very talented staff members. Thankfully, the school was only half an hour away from my house, but since the initial tests are open to anybody studying in the UK, most people travelled from further afield, including some from Ireland and Wales. Im glad they did – it really would have been a shame to see somebody miss out on such a great week.
I am pleased to report that of the 50-some people I met, there was not one that I didn’t like. I really did discover the definition of “like-minded” – there was not one person who wasn’t enthralled by the amazing maths we were doing, and not one person who was there to ruin the week for the rest of us. The seniors were particularly helpful. All of them were very talented at maths, but above all you could tell that they absolutely loved the experience. They had all been before, and they loved it so much, they wanted to come back! That in itself is a testament to the week.
Each day was chockered with maths. 3 hours in the morning, followed by 3 hours after lunch, and if that wasn’t enough, there was invariably a maths-related activity in the evening (with the exception if the one day we went bowling, to almost unanimous failure). The topics covered were diverse: mind-bending descriptions of shapes defying what we believed previously (2D spheres, anyone?), sweat-inducing cyclotomic polynomials, and ultra-efficient sight-seeing.
But I’m not here to discuss the maths. A bunch of great teachers can always put together a week of hard maths, but what struck me most was the unity of everyone involved. We spent the week sleeping at the school with a roommate, and I didn’t hear a single instance of negativity. Mealtimes were always good too – most of the time, the staff would sit with the attendants, even though they had their own table. This opened up room for great discussion, clarification, joking, and more, even outside of lessons. The whole week was inspiring, and while I intend to study Computer Science at university, I will certainly be keeping Maths going for the enjoyment and for the hope of being invited to a similar week again.
I might have given an overly academic perspective so far. Don’t get me wrong, of course the week was gruelling, but that’s not to say that there wasn’t a lot of down time too. I previously mentioned bowling, which offered a great release after a day of intense hard work. However, if the week has taught me anything, it’s that mathematicians make almost invariably bad bowlers. On the penultimate day, a “mathemusical extravaganza” was hosted, with a name I can’t help but think stolen from Vi Hart. Despite the obvious performances of violinists and pianists, a few acts shone. Notably, a balloon twister who rendered the audience dead of laughter, and a heartwarming parody of Gangam Style by the seniors (not-so-cleverly titled “MathsCamp Style”).
Besides all the official activities, a few other themes throughout the week recurred, especially the frequent games of “Mafia” and “Psychiatrist”, the former of which I hear is a regular at maths camps. These games, while thought-provoking, are most importantly extremely enjoyable, and allowed the whole group to bond and get together. They were also mostly organised by the seniors, who were going beyond the normal course of duty to make sure that we had a great week.
If you couldn’t already tell, I have had a fantastic week, and I am immensely grateful to all who made it so. I have been motivated to further increase my lust for mathematical knowledges and I’m sure everybody else who attended had been too. I have met friends this week that I will never forget, and who I hope that I will remain in contact with for the rest of my life. I would urge anyone who has been invited to a week to go, even if it is awkward to arrange, or a long way to travel. You will not regret it.
I can only hope that I am privileged enough to be invited to another week next year.