The following is written by Ahaan Rungta, the founder and director of CalcBee. Ahaan is a high-school junior whose favorite hobby is problem-writing in math, physics, chemistry, and programming. He is also the founder of onlinescienceolympiads.org.
CalcBee, the first live calculus contest for high-school students run by students, has officially been finalized to take place at MIT in January 2015. It came as a surprise for some of you. Some expected the concept of CalcBee to eventually turn into a reality but so soon? To be honest, I didn’t expect it either. Many have asked me varying questions. The question marks are piling up. The exclamation marks are hovering. But the answers have not been appearing. Here, I hope to answer some of the questions I have been receiving. This is not meant to be an FAQ about the contest – you can find details of the contest itself on the website. This is an informal FAQ to the questions that you have asked (and some that you may not have asked). Please note that there is no hidden treasure or any secrets in this article so read at your own risk!
First for some background – CalcBee is an extension of another contest series. Yes, okay, I plagiarized, sort of … off myself. As a ninth-grader, I founded the Online Science Olympiads (OSO) organization. The OSO runs contests in physics and chemistry and soon will offer contests in programming. These are completely online, free, and run by a small staff of about 20 people. I supervise and run both contests and I am one of the problem writers.
The OSO has been an extremely rewarding experience as it has taught me much more than the classroom can teach and, being homeschooled, the amount of time I put into the OSO played a huge role in its quality. Fortunately, I have no complaints about it yet. Of course, there are several components that go into running the OSO: running the contests, advertising them, grading submissions, etc. and indeed, it can be nerve-wrecking at times. A writer would vent out these emotions in a work of art. An athlete would do so in the gym. I let them out (note: not vent, as it’s never frustrating watching the countless number of rewards) on the problems I make. My creative efforts go completely into the problems I make. This is what makes problem-writing my favorite passion.
Sometimes I go a bit overboard and I end up writing too many problems for one night. It was an April morning, the day after one of those crazy problem-writing parties, that my brain clicked. I had a passion for contests and for math, so why not start a math contest? I always enjoyed starting contests on the Art of Problem Solving forums. I ran them, I wrote them, I graded them, and I discussed them – so why not take it to the next level of doing an official contest? I presented this challenge to myself and immediately accepted. The results had to be good – whenever I thought things over too much, I’ve not seen the strongest of results.
I started my hunt for staff and the tools to begin the organizational blueprints of the contest. When I started the OSO, nobody thought it was possible. Many pleaded with me to give up. Many raged to others to not be a fool to find the OSOs credible. Ignorance was and still is bliss. I let that noise bounce off and made sure my fellow staff members, who have had the immense faith in the OSOs, did not get affected by it. It worked.
So what was the deal with CalcBee? You may argue that, while math as a subject is slightly popular than science, there is still the rumored calculus trap. I may not believe in these detractors, but there are several others who do, right? While I respect the opinions of everybody, giving in to those who oppose CalcBee was not an option. And here I answer the first big question: was the team of CalcBee easier or harder to form than that of the OSOs?
Much harder to say the least. Unfortunately, the minimal amount of trust I was able to feed into those who were invited to the OSO staff was almost absent among the first of those who heard about CalcBee. First, I recruited Clive Chan to make a website, since I wanted to be busy doing chores not related to the website – he proved to be all that I ever thought he was: quick, responsible, and loyal. He was clearly the first of my friends who was with me in this effort. While he coded, I tried recruiting problem-writing staff. Frankly, I was a bit picky about who I invited so I spoke to about 50 people as an informal spreading-of-word among those I knew. I got about 5 positive reactions, 40 negative reactions, and 5 indifferent reactions. I realized the number “50” would turn into triple-digit numbers very quickly and indeed, people started popping out of nowhere, some with that same discouraging jazz, some with “huh?” and some with just “let’s see” – all I got was a bunch of advice, discouragement, and lame comments. Forming credibility was never easy for me and I doubt it’ll ever become easy. So every time you stop to think how I made dreams into reality, think again: it’s not me. I couldn’t have done it alone. If you are a staff member reading this, trust me: it’s just not me, everybody is grateful for your services. Those who were with us and those who weren’t – everybody appreciates your time and efforts. From my side, it’s my responsibility to never forget your faith in the power of mathematics!
We, the problem-writing staff, continuously wrote problems for 2 months when it was about time that I started filling in the last hole – the venue. Admittedly, this department was one in which I wasn’t experienced. There’s always a first, yes? This was a first for me. I started doing what any other amateur does – I waved my arms around and tried sending out e-mails. For about two weeks, I was lazy and sent the same e-mail (using a little template I had prepared) to about 100 venues, which included high schools and community colleges all over New England. Till today, I have received 0 responses from those schools. I was always willing to travel the distance – I would do whatever it took to get the job done. Fortunately, I met with nothing but failure. I got rid of a bit of my slumber and picked up the phone and did the same venue hunt via phone calls. Yet again, I received 0 interest – little did I think that there were other things in store for CalcBee.
For about one month, there was absolute silence on the venue front. The haters started sensing victory and emotions started building. Then, Friday, August 22, 2014, turned out to be a big day. I was walking on Massachusetts Avenue when I had realized that, for the last few months, I had overlooked two possible locations for CalcBee due to subconscious nervousness and my inexperience turning into fear – see, not everything was perfect! The two locations were Harvard and MIT.
That Friday, I contacted the Harvard and MIT government offices. That might seem like a very normal thing to do, but for me, at that time, that was a big risk. The respect I had for the institutions stopped me from directly contacting their administrative staff. Saturday morning, I received an extremely positive response from the director of the government office at MIT, Mr. Paul Parravano. After reading my e-mail, which outlined every single detail about the contest and what I was looking for at MIT, he agreed to provide CalcBee with a full lecture hall just for the contest. What’s more, he guaranteed a $0-payment. And that’s how the MIT Office of Government relations became the main sponsor of CalcBee.
The moral of the story, I think, is the old saying: fate favors the fearless. The two keys to take out of Mr. Parravano’s positive response pattern were: a) he’s an extremely humble and generous gentleman; b) e-mail skills are hard and they require experience – detail and confidence in an e-mail make up, I’d say, about 80% of getting the job to move forward.
From here, it goes in the hands of us, the CalcBee staff, and a bit of luck, to make CalcBee run smoothly. The first contest hasn’t taken place yet, so fingers crossed – so far, it seems like we’re off to a good start. Let’s hope that things continue as well as they started. See you at MIT on January the Tenth!