When the Math Olympiad winners reflect upon what made them the country's most brilliant math students, genius is not what comes to mind.
The eight teens cite nurturing parents, inspiring, innovative teachers and, above all, a community that viewed a math whiz kid as cool, not "nerdy."
Seated recently at a Washington hotel after receiving medals for being the top scorers on the exacting US Mathematical Olympiad competition, the teenagers recount tales of how numbers have fascinated them since early childhood.
"My parents were a big part of it because they supported it, and they taught me little things about math because they knew I'd pick it up," says Josh Nichols-Barrer, of Newton, Mass., who recalls asking how to multiply in preschool. "I also had this teacher in high school. He'd start a problem and ask for suggestions. He wouldn't bat anyone down. He was always open to ideas."
"It was a big ole love fest for me," says Davesh Maulik, of Roslyn, N.Y., who also plays violin. "My parents supported me, my teachers did. When I work with math, I enjoy the sort of abstract nature of things and the fact that everything follows this inherent order. I like the creative aspect of what we're doing."
World competition next
On July 24 and 25, the six highest scorers - Josh, Daniel Stronger, John Clyde, Carl Bosley, Nathan Curtis, and Li Chung-Chen (fresh out of high school) - will compete in Mar del Plata, Argentina, at the International Mathematical Olympiad. Two are alternates: Davesh and Kevin Lacker. The two-day contest draws together secondary school students from some 75 countries who must answer six complex problems in just nine hours. The six boys, plus 24 other top US math students, are now in a training program at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln.
Since the competition began in 1974, the US team has taken first place once and scored second nine times. Educators take pride in the teens' achievements. But that success has come, they say, despite a system that is failing to teach middle-school students well in math.
According to the Third International Math and Science Study (TIMSS), American eighth-graders were dramatically outperformed by 28 out of 40 other countries measured, falling below the international average. Yet, last month, the study showed US fourth-graders as ranking above the international average, although not in the top 10 percent.
"It's good these [Olympiad] kids can do well. But these other results tell us there is a huge problem we have to deal with that we're not dealing with," says William Schmidt, the US national research coordinator for TIMSS.
Mr. Schmidt attributes the US scores to an outdated curriculum that drills equations and tables into children's heads, rather than posing challenging problems that inspire learning. He also laments a society that frequently associates math and science achievement with social ineptness.
Josh, the first-place winner, remembers other children being interested in math before fourth grade. But then, he says, "parents begin to remember the trouble they had in math.They say, 'I could never do that. Don't worry about it.' So, kids learn it's okay not to be good in math and girls aren't supposed to excel."
Quoting an eminent mathematician, he adds: "I think it's because it's okay in this society for kids to be innumerate."
"Many more kids could achieve at higher levels," says Kenneth Hoffman, director of the National Alliance of State Science and Mathematics Coalitions. "The main problem in the United States is that the concept of what kids are able to learn is set too low."
Elsewhere, he says, schools are teaching advanced geometry, algebra, and number work after fourth grade, posing engaging problems that reflect real life.
"Up to third grade, American children love math," he says. "But you get to fourth grade, and instead of asking kids challenging things we start this intense drill and practice, on decimals, percentages, and fractions. They start out liking it and we end up drumming it out of them."
"These [Olympiad winners] ... were able to pay no attention to that," he says. "Unfortunately, for most people, we send them downhill into the middle-school desert. We've managed to persuade people that math is only for a few people. People in other countries know that's a line of baloney."
But US attitudes may be changing. More schools are trying innovative programs to inspire kids in math and science, and projects that target girls.
Only two girls are at the University of Nebraska training program, and there has yet to be one on a US team. (Last year, there were only 21 girls out of 435 international contestants.)
Studies on why girls have not excelled in math or science point to everything from genetic differences to cultural barriers - reflected in one project that found that even in classes led by female teachers, boys were called upon more often than girls.
As for the Olympiad winners, they may need nurturing, parents say. But the rest is their ability.
The ability of students like the Olympiad winners reaches far beyond the typical, or even above-average, American student. Yet, the factors that propelled them into math stardom are exactly those, educators say, whose absence are leaving behind millions more children nearly as gifted.
Algebra at five
As a toddler, Daniel Stronger, of Little Neck, N.Y., would go around the house identifying octagons, his mother says. By five, he had conquered algebra. He tells how his mother drove three hours a day for five years so he could get to a private school in Brooklyn that could teach him challenging math.
In Idaho, John Clyde, spent summers in Pocatello, hours away from his parents in New Plymouth, to live with a math professor. All the parents of the six Olympiad winners and the two alternates spent money and time so their children - who showed clear signs of talent at an early age - could get special training. And teachers offered encouragement.
The kids defy the "nerd" status, possessing other passions that range from music to acting. All share a love of juggling and Ultimate Frisbee. Five are headed for Harvard University in the fall. Two are going to Duke University. One is still in high school.
The boys say what attracted them to math was the sense that, unlike in other aspects of study, there's an "absolute truth" and a stimulating challenge in finding it. "I look at it as an artistic thing," says Josh. "I regard math as one of the arts. To me, it's more than an art, it's a science. "