When Alexander Iverson, 20, was in first or second grade, he learned about subtraction and the order of operations. Though his answers in class and on homework assignments were almost always correct, the teacher consistently failed him.
The reason? His more efficient method of calculation — essentially inventing the concept of negative numbers (something Iverson’s class had yet to learn) and then rearranging the order of operations to fit his method — went against the teacher’s instructions.
Iverson, now a rising senior studying computer science at the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology (SDSMT) and a recent competitor in the collegiate “Olympics of computer programming,” recalled that experience last week in a phone interview.
“It was awful,” he said. “Essentially, I invented a piece of math that accomplished a task better than the one I was taught and I was penalized for improving something.”
That experience, Iverson said, sticks in his mind as a perfect example of the problem with math and computer science education in America, a problem perhaps never more evident than on May 24, when Rapid City, South Dakota, hosted the 41st annual International Collegiate Programming Contest World Finals.
From about 9 a.m. until 2 p.m. that day, nearly 400 of the world’s finest young computer programmers — composed of 133 three-person teams from 44 countries — competed to answer as many of the 12 computer programming problem sets as they could. Each team in attendance had already passed through regional competitions, besting 46,381 students across 103 countries in 530 different regional locations.
At around 5 p.m., the results came in.
The first-place prize went to a Russian team from the St. Petersburg National Research University for Information Technologies, Mechanics and Optics, solving 10 problems in the shortest time period. Just one problem, organizers and coaches explained, would take typical computer science students an entire semester to solve. It was the Russian school’s fourth win since 2012.
Four other teams from the University of Warsaw, Seoul National University, St. Petersburg State University and the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology also answered 10 problems. Overall, Russian and Chinese teams took nine of the top 14 spots, with the University of Central Florida (13th place, seven problems) and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (20th place, six problems) taking the top spots for American schools.
Iverson and his teammates on the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology team, who received an honorable mention with two correct answers (the school’s enrollment is less than 3,000), seemed unsurprised by the results.
"We [the United States] don’t care enough about it,” Iverson said. “Money is a unit of caring and apparently we care more about keeping people in prison than we do about teaching them.”
Iverson added that one of the main reasons he has excelled in an area where other American students haven’t is because of his self-instruction outside of school.
“It was mostly my own exploration,” Iverson said of his early years.
Matthew Schallenkamp, 20, a rising junior computer science major at SDSMT and Iverson’s teammate, said his first exposure to computer programming occurred when he stumbled across a coding textbook in the library of his South Dakota high school.
“We didn’t really have amazing computer science courses,” Schallenkamp said. “It was really just a math teacher who offered to teach them.”
Both men agreed that the main cause of the Russian and Chinese success was simple: they start learning about the concepts behind computer programming much earlier than Americans.
Larry Pyeatt, an associate professor of mathematics and computer science at the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology and the coach of the SDSMT team, said that wasn’t always the case.
“A lot of those programs have been cut because of funding, whereas back in the ’80s I had computer programming in high school for two years and it was a huge advantage when I went into college,” said Pyeatt, who placed third in the 1989 ICPC World Finals for Texas Tech. “Very few students get that these days.”
Earlier this year, Pyeatt traveled to Russia with Schallenkamp and five other students for a training camp in preparation for the competition. The difference in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education was clear.
“By the time people get out of K through 12 in Russia, it’s very likely that they’ve already taken calculus and already been programming,” Pyeatt said. “They start about four years earlier preparing them for STEM fields. Until recently every student in Russia had to have calculus just to get a high school degree, so they push the mathematics and science much more heavily than our schools do.”
As news stories continue to unfold detailing the hacking efforts and meddling of the Russian government in foreign elections, ICPC Executive Director William Poucher said regular searches of his competitors database had yet to ever find a former competitor related to such events.
“I never find their names,” he said. “Our kids are out here building the tools that actually protect you from people who simply exploit the historical faults and problems that exist. The challenge with the hackers is they don’t have anything to do worth doing, and there’s something wrong with that.”
Jeff Donahoo, deputy executive director for ICPC, agreed.
“The key for the future is opportunity and the way that we’re going to provide opportunity so that people have a chance to do things that are creative rather than destructive is to come together in strength as a community.”
As for improving the education system, Poucher said the answer was simple.
“All you need to do to do a little bit better is more investment,” he said. “Anybody who ever tells you that the problem is not money… give me a break. The most important thing that we ever do is invest in community. Invest in kids. Invest in parents.”
To Iverson, education is like a hot pan for politicians: they touch it once, get burnt, and learn never to touch it again. In his mind, a change in teaching philosophy could produce positive results at a time when increased investment seems unlikely.
“We have poor incentives that encourage teachers and schools to optimize for things other than the actual learning and skills of students,” Iverson said, pointing to the way in which standardized tests dictate curriculums and define success for schools, teachers and students.
Recalling his first run-in with the American math education system, Iverson said he learned a great lesson, even if it wasn’t the one the teacher had intended.
“That’s the type of exploration — finding an interesting new way to do this, figuring out how to use it more efficiently and then applying it in a useful way — that’s extremely discouraged,” he said. “I think if that were encouraged and rewarded a lot more, students would enjoy learning.”