Growing Up A Mathematician

Illustration by Nino Mekanarishvili

Lourens van Niekerk shares with us his inspiring story of his mathematics journey. He shares with us his initial interest in mathematics that started in grade 4, and how this interest sparked a competitive streak in him. He challenges readers to commit themselves to one goal for several years.

Take a moment to think of what you would be like if you centred your energy on one specific goal and worked towards that goal for a few years. Maybe five or ten years? You probably think you would gain a lot of skills… or knowledge… or money? You would find after a few years, you gained more than you could have imagined. A lot more, in fact!

So then, what would happen if you made it your goal to do mathematics to the best of your abilities from the age of 10 years old and for the next 10 years of your life? The following would be your story:

You would start in your grade 4 class at school. You would be jumping in your desk like popping popcorn to answer almost every question your teacher presents the class. You might get some questions wrong, but the teacher will congratulate you on the many questions you got correct, which will only make you more excited. The teacher will recognize your enthusiasm for mathematics even more than your mathematical abilities. The teacher will inevitably contact your parents and suggest that you participate in advanced mathematics programs and competitions, recognizing immense potential in you.

A number of after-school mathematics programs exist all over South Africa for learners from grade 4 to grade 12. Competitions such as the South African Mathematics Challenge for grade 4 to grade 7 learners can be found at The South African Mathematics Foundation (SAMF) will be your window into the world of mathematics. Other competitions such as the UP Mathematics Competition, Living Math Olympiad online, competitions on and competitions hosted by your school, town or province are also at your fingertips.

After a competition or two, eventually, you will start to win chocolates and money (for chocolates). You will be hooked. Your competitive edge will grow. By the end of grade 6 you will be renowned for mathematics by the learners and teachers alike. But it is only at this moment that your true potential will come to bloom.

By this time, SAMF will have scouted you from your results at the SA Mathematics Challenge and your reputation of silver and gold medals at other competitions. You will be recommended to write the team selection test for the SA team traveling to the Po Leung Kuk Primary Mathematics World Contest (PMWC) in Hong Kong the following year. Undoubtedly a smart kid like yourself would pass all the selection test rounds and make the team at the start of grade 7. Over the next 6 months, you will receive advanced training for PMWC that would place you at the mathematical level of a smart grade 9 learner. Pretty smart!

Illustration by Liani Malherbe

At PMWC, you will make many international friends and experience the global mathematics culture. Your young eyes will glisten at the sight of the global community engaging in mathematics, the gifts all the other countries exchange with you and tons of fun mathematical puzzles to solve. It is at this time and age that you will start to notice mathematics in everyday life and be amazed by its beauty unfolding all around you.

PMWC not only has an individual round, but also a team round. Your training for this round, as well as other team competitions such as the ASSA South African Mathematics Team Competition for grade 7 till grade 12 learners, will teach you how to collaborate with those around you. Most importantly, you will learn that even if you are the best, you are not the best at everything. You might be the best at algebra and puzzle-like questions, but your buddies are far better at geometry or logic. Not only that, but you and your new friends will voluntarily seek to learn from each other their area of specialties. The team knowledge and trust will snowball and everyone will love mathematics even more.

Competitions will continue to present themselves to you. The International Mathematics Competition (IMC) for grade 9 and 10 learners will once more teach you tons of mathematics in 6 months, but this time till grade 12 level, if not more (imagine writing a matriculation mathematics exam in grade 10 and scoring 80%). The SA Maths Olympiad for grade 8 till grade 12 will cement you as a national mathematician among 30 000 entries. Programs like the SAMF Olympiad Training Program and the Siyanqoba Regional Olympiad Training Program will keep your knowledge growing years ahead of your classmates.

You will be invited to the Stellenbosch Mathematics camp for high school students held in December for the top 50 candidates selected in SA. The best at this camp get invited to the April camp for the top 15 candidates in SA. There, you will either be placed in the team for the Pan African Mathematics Olympiad (PAMO) or the International Mathematics Olympiad (IMO), which is the pen-ultimate and ultimate honor, respectively, to be part of as a school kid. You will know difficult university mathematics and so much more. You will now be renowned for your mathematical intelligence by students and talent-searching companies alike, all over SA.

After 10 years, finally in your first year of university, you will have nearly unmatched calculative creativity, a highly-efficient work ethic, multiple connections nationally and internationally, financial freedom by student standards, strong collaborative skills and a fascination for all things mathematics. You will be invited to train the next generation of young mathematicians and give back all that was given upon you. The assets, skills and experience you have will propel you into your degree and beyond with flying colours.

This was me, and it could be you. This is the beauty of mathematics; there are seemingly endless opportunities growing up to become GREAT at it. Why not BE great?

Lourens van Niekerk

Mathematics Honours Student,

Illustration by Nino Mekanarishvili

Pascal poem:

word here
and two words there
still they get more every line I compare
maybe there is a pattern I am unaware where the words get doubled by a pair

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