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US wins Math Olympiad for first time in 21 years. Is math education improving?

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(Read caption) Fifth graders at Rocketship SI Se Puede, a charter, public elementary school, in San Jose, California work with science and math teacher Stephen Pham. In recent years, US students have struggled to keep up with their global counterparts in the field of math.

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The United States is number one in a sector it has struggled to conquer in recent decades: math.

This week, high school students from across the globe gathered in Chiang Mai, Thailand, for the International Mathematical Olympiad. Hailed as the “hardest ever” competition by The Guardian, the final score reflects the exhaustive preparatory work done by coaches and students alike. Team USA, led by Carnegie Mellon professor Po-Shen Loh, took the crown for the first time since 1994, NPR reported.

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Members of the US team beat the Chinese by four points, earning 185 to China's 181. The Republic of Korea came in third place with a score of 161, according to the website for the Mathematical Association of America.

The win is a significant for several reasons, Mr. Loh told NPR, but especially because it's been such a long time coming.

“It’s been 21 years,” Loh told The Washington Post. “This is a huge deal.”  

This victory for Team USA 2015 comes after years of speculation surrounding American math and science performance. A February report done by the Pew Research Center found that only 16 percent of members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science rate US K-12 education in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (also known as STEM) as above average or the best in the world. And, although US students are scoring higher on national math assessments then they did two decades ago, they still rank around the middle of the pack in most international comparisons.

In a “STEM Symposium” held in Washington D.C. in 2013, experts suggested several ways in which US math education could improve.

One would be to create a better image for STEM studies among US youth, says Grant Imahara, Discovery Channel’s “Myth Busters” personality and a USC engineering graduate. Every kid needs a role models to look up to, he insists. “[In this field we] need rockstars. In the 60s astronauts were rockstars,” he told US News & World Report. “Everyone wanted to be an astronaut.”

Recommended:STEM Heroines: Math role models for girls

Others are convinced that the American focus on memorization has turned students away from math. Tara Holm, a mathematician herself, writes about this phenomenon in an opinion piece for The Boston Globe:

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“We are pretty much the only country on the planet that teaches math this way, where students are forced to memorize formulas and procedures. And so kids miss the more organic experience of playing with mathematical puzzles, experimenting and searching for patterns, finding delight in their own discoveries. Most students learn to detest – or at best, endure – math, and this is why our students are falling behind their international peers.”

Loh echoes Holm's disapproval of how math is taught in the United States:

"It could be that maybe the way math is sold, in some sense, is one in which it's just a bunch of formulas to memorize. I think if we are able to communicate to the greater American public that mathematics is not just about memorizing a bunch of formulas, but in fact is as creative as the humanities and arts, quite possibly you might be able to upend the culture difference," he told NPR.

Some may see the victory at this year's Math Olympiad as a sign that things are already turning around for math education in the United States. But it is obvious that there remains a good deal more room for improvement in at least one area: gender parity. All six members of this year's victorious. Team USA are boys.

"That is actually something that one hopes will change," Loh says.