In this test, it's the creativity that counts

Ever have that dream where you're back in school and have to take a big test that you haven't studied for? Now imagine being wide awake and facing this: 


Solve: INK + INK + INK + INK + INK + INK = PEN


(INK and PEN are 3-digit numbers, and different letters stand for different digits)


It's the stuff of nightmares for many adults, but the first Greater Boston Math Olympiad was only open to fourth-, fifth-, and sixth-graders, almost 100 of whom showed up at the Shaloh House Jewish Day School in Brighton two weeks ago. Organized with help from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Brandeis University, and Boston University, the event was the first of its kind in the Boston area: an open-to-all competition between individuals, separated by grade, that tested more than their skills at adding, subtracting, multiplying, and dividing.


''This is not like a math lesson," cautioned MIT associate professor Pavel Etingof during his instructions to the competitors.


''Here, if you solve at least one problem, this already means that you are very smart," he said. ''If you solve two problems, this means you are very, very smart; if you solve three problems, this means you are very, very, very smart."


But the day held surprises for students used to acing math tests.


''He doesn't know what he's going to get into," laughed Raghavan Srinivasa as he waited for his son Ssriva, ''because we have not given him any sample papers or nothing like that. This type of math is totally different."


A nuclear physicist from Sharon, Srinivasa said that he and his wife, Mangai, an accountant, wanted their son to really find the limits of his abilities.


''Most of the time in school he gets 100, so we were trying to tell him, 'You are in a public school system; you have to go and take something externally, then you'll know what a sixth-grader can do,' " said Mangai Srinivasa. ''My thing is, what you can do versus what you are doing is the difference they need to know."


All of this might conjure images of parents cheering and shouting out square roots from the sidelines, but such was not the case at Shaloh House: After registering in the basement, the young Olympians were then escorted up to the no-parents-allowed test room, which seemed to be just fine with everyone.


''It's just one of those things that has nothing to do with the parents, and we're thrilled when we're not around because the kids don't need us," said Charles Klein of Brookline after dropping off his son Aaron. ''Most of us can be no help to them and only a detriment that affects their focus and their enjoyment."

And despite the challenge of figuring out how many times a day the hands of a clock form a right angle, or having to make change using fictitious currency in $5 and $7 bills, most of the competitors emerged with smiles. Wide-eyed smiles, in some cases.


''The problems are very good, but some of them were, like, really hard," said a slightly dazed Dan Averbukh, a sixth-grader at Sharon Middle School. ''I was a little surprised. I got a couple, but not the first one."


''It was hard," said fourth-grader Liza Gribkova of Natick.


How did she do?


''I don't think I did bad, but I don't think I did good, either, so I think I did OK."


Surprise, along with fun, turns out to be a common theme.


''I expected a little bit easier," said Ssriva Srinivasa, son of the nuclear physicist and accountant. ''One or two of them I didn't understand, so I think I got like three or four right."

Upstairs in the test room, MIT's Etingof, who created the questions, said he sees such reactions as proof that the first edition of the Olympiad was a success.


''In school it's expected that people will solve all problems; if they don't, then they get a bad grade," he said. Around him in the now nearly-empty test room, papers were collected for scoring, in preparation for an awards ceremony the next night where all competitors were to be honored for taking part. ''In this situation, if they solve at least one problem, that already means they are very smart. So it's expected that people will have a lot of trouble.


''Really, math is thinking, it's creativity."


(Answer to the question, from the test for fifth-graders: INK = 105, PEN = 630. To learn more about the Shaloh House, go to www.shaloh.org.)


Will Kilburn can be reached at [email protected]