The submit button: academic competitions move online


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Due to the pandemic, many academic competitions are being held online. Although the testing environment is different this year, Jefferson’s clubs manage to find ways to let students enjoy the competitions. “Math contests, especially that AMC, impact a lot of TJ students. Normally, we have an entire eighth period dedicated to the AMC. For some students, they like to see their improvement over the years. Boiling that down to a single number– it is really satisfying when you see that go up. For others, it might be a contest that they’re passionate about. Overall, it is a fun, accessible event for all of TJ because unlike physics or chemistry, everyone at TJ has learned math,” Varsity Math Team captain and senior Derek Dong said.

Evelyn Li, Staff Writer

Pencil in one hand, computer mouse in the other, students race to complete a problem set. Just as the 75-minute time limit runs out, American Mathematics Competition (AMC) participants click the submit button at the bottom of their screen. Answers locked in, hours of preparation and a suspicion of luck determine their results. On Feb. 4, more than 300 of Jefferson’s students completed the AMC. Soon after, on Feb. 11, USA Biology Olympiad exam candidates finished the USABO Open Exam.

Not only is the COVID-19 pandemic rapidly spreading, but its vice-like grip on in-person meetings also resulted in many competitions being held on online platforms. Compared to past paper and pencil competitions where students gathered together in specific locations to take an exam, many students this year are competing from behind their computer screens. For example, both the AMC and USABO Open Exam were held online this year through Art of Problem Solving Online– a website from the company, AoPS. Although AoPS Online is accessible from students’ homes, Jefferson’s Varsity Math Team (VMT) sponsor Marianne Razzino had significant difficulty convincing Fairfax County Public Schools to allow students to use the website.

“We wanted to be able to do what we normally do which is offer every student at TJ the chance to take it as part of a modified school day,” Razzino said. “The county did not approve of doing it because the contest organizer, Mathematical Association of America (MAA), is working with Art of Problem Solving, and the confidentiality agreement on the AoPS website says that they might give your information to third party vendors. One of those third party vendors is Facebook. The county is not ready to allow that to happen because we know Facebook does target marketing.”

Contrary to past years where over 1000 students registered for the exam, only around 350 competed within Jefferson this year. Because of the privacy concerns FCPS raised about the platform the AMC was hosted on, the AMC series gained significantly less publicity at Jefferson. Much of the popularity gained from having the AMC as a part of the school day disappeared this year. Fortunately, due to the persistence of the VMT officers and sponsors, the AMC was offered as a club activity.

“The AMC would have been a giant event in the school. An entire eighth period would be dedicated to it, and everyone in the school would clearly have the option to take it. This year, we still had all the math teachers tell their students that AMC was happening and how to register for it. But because students can’t exactly tell each other about the AMC in-person, I don’t think it spread as much as they normally would,” VMT captain and senior Derek Dong said.

Moreover, the one of the biggest difficulties that quarantine has thrown into students’ faces is lack of communication. For instance, the TJ Biology Olympiad (TJBO) team officers hope that the virtual setting does not obstruct normal club activities.

“Last year, we would discuss the questions and how the questions might affect the questions asked on the Semifinal Exam,” TJBO co-captain and senior Siddharth Krishnakumar said. “Now, there’s less communication of what kind of topics they tried to cover in the Open Exam. We’re all basically by ourselves, and we can’t really discuss.”
Nonetheless, despite the hardships COVID-19 caused for students taking these exams, some students believe that the online setting makes the exams more accessible.

“For the AMC this year, we didn’t need to bubble in answers. Instead, we just clicked the button with the correct answer choice. That’s definitely easier because you’re not prone to bubbling the wrong answers in, or having issues with the pencil that you’re using,” freshman Emi Zhang said. “Also, unlike previous years, there wasn’t a specific time where we needed to take the test. We just needed to take it outside of school hours.”

Additionally, TJBO officers agree that the online setting lessens the management side of preparing to take the exams.
“Before, we would need to prepare a lot of things. For example, we had to let the school allow us to use the cafeteria, set up dividers, and get a lot of teachers to serve as proctors. But this year, since we proctored through Google Meets, we only needed one teacher to proctor. Basically, we didn’t need to do a lot of logistical steps that we had to do in the past,” Krishnakumar said.

Furthermore, in order to prepare for the new formatting of the contests, clubs took the initiative to adjust their preparation plans.

“We hold weekly practices every Monday to help students with contests in the AMC series. For online competitions, our team selection tests function as practice for doing math with problems on a screen instead of paper, and it’s a pretty different experience. Essentially, we have practices so that students can get used to taking tests online,” Dong said.

In addition, club members believe that their clubs have helped them adjust to the nature of this year’s competitions. For instance, the TJBO officers held a competition before Winter Break with the topics that they predicted the Open Exam would cover.

“We have to do our eighth period meetings in a virtual setting, and the way that they do it is that they’ll have competitions online and lectures presented via slides using online school technology. This is the same way that the USABO was held by– via AoPS online. I think it’s a similar kind of format which made the adjustment a little bit easier,” sophomore Lynn Tao said.