Local maths prodigy competes at university level

Ralph McDougall, Grade 12 learner at Curro Durbanville, recently scored top marks in the South African Tertiary Mathematics Olympiad (SATMO), finishing alongside second- and third-year university students in the top six.

“I’ve always done really well in Maths at school. It was probably since grade 5 or 6 that I’ve consciously tried to practice as much as possible and go beyond the school syllabus,” says McDougall. “I enjoy coming up with creative solutions to difficult problems. It’s really satisfying when you’ve been working on a hard problem for several hours and then finally make the vital break-through to solve it.”

McDougall plans to study electronic engineering at the University of Stellenbosch in 2019. He is currently in Japan, competing at the International Olympiad in Informatics. “It’s the biggest programming Olympiad focused on schoolchildren in the world. I’m part of the South African team (four people) that was chosen to participate in it this year. I’ve made it to the final round of the Olympiad (top 15 in the country) since grade 8. My teacher at the time, Mrs Licia van der Vyver, encouraged me to do it and encouraged me to keep at it.”

Not only does McDougall have a good support system at home, he receives immense support at school too, while his teacher allows him to work at his own level in maths classes. “The school has also accommodated me for all of the weeks I’ve been out of school for Maths by moving tests or by letting me submit projects over email while I’m away,” he says. “Winning the UCT Maths Competition this year was a big moment for me. It’s something I’ve wanted to do since I was in grade 8, so it was nice to get it in my last year.”

He says his former teacher, Maria Schmidt, who taught him maths from grade 7 to 10, helped to nurture his talent. Schmidt, who is Curro Curriculum Management and Delivery: Manager High Schools and Mathematics Specialist, says she realised at an early stage in teaching McDougall that he interacted differently with the mathematical environment. “I also realised that Ralph finished normal problems within seconds, not even writing down the strategies and without using traditional algorithms,” she says. “He grasped mathematical concepts with ease. I recognised that this boy has an inquisitive mind that never stops discovering and asking questions.”

She gave him more advanced problems to solve in class time. “I created opportunities for him to pursue his abilities,” she says. “I realised that as a highly talented person he never thought he knew it all. His talent was extraordinary, but so was his teachability. He has a teachable attitude and therefore becomes a talent-plus learner.”

“At Curro, we set a respectful environment that promotes a community of thinkers and problem solvers,” says Schmidt. “We gave him time to participate in classroom discussions and share his way of thinking with his peers. We want learners to develop the skills to question and engage in reflective thinking. The most important strategy is developing a positive classroom climate that is conducive for learning.”

“The teachers at Curro encourage the learners to ‘play around’ with what they’re learning with apps like Geogebra,” enthuses McDougall. “The teachers are also always very eager to sign people up for Olympiads, which is very good as it allows students to experience more difficult, yet more interesting problems.”

Maryke McDougall, Ralph’s mother, says her son has been gifted with a very high aptitude for maths, which was evident from nursery school age. “We are very proud of his achievements and are really pleased when hard work is rewarded by doing well in competitions, but also getting fantastic opportunities to travel very widely across the world to represent our country doing the subjects he is passionate about.”

Curro Durbanville’s Executive Head, Dirk van Zyl, expresses how much of an honour it has been having Ralph as a learner in their school system. “His talent and dedication in life has been an inspiration for his fellow peers and teachers, and we certainly look forward to keeping an eye on him and his exciting future endeavours.”

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