In one of this year's most intense international competitions, the United States has come out as best in the world — and this time, we're not talking about soccer.

This week, the top-ranked math students from high schools around the country went head-to-head with competitors from more than 100 countries at the International Mathematical Olympiad in Chiang Mai, Thailand. And, for the first time in more than two decades, they won.

Po-Shen Loh, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University and head coach for Team USA, says the competition is held over the course of two days. Students work on three math problems each.

"If you can even solve one question," Loh tells NPR's Arun Rath, "you're a bit of a genius."

The atmosphere at the Olympiad is intensely still.

"I will say that it's not really a super-great spectator sport, in the sense that if you are watching them, it will look like they are thinking," he says. "Although I will assure you that inside their heads, if you could spectate, that would be quite a sport."

The U.S. team last won the Olympiad in 1994. Reports in recent years have raised concerns that American math students are falling behind those in the rest of the world. But, Loh says, "At least in this case with the Olympiads, we've been able to prove that our top Americans are certainly at the level of the top people from the other countries."

Concerns have also been raised over the years about a persistent gender gap in U.S. math achievement. All six members of this year's winning team are boys. "That is actually something that one hopes will change," Loh says. "The top 12 people in the country on the United States Math Olympiad happen to have two girls in it. One might say, 'Only 2 out of 12, that's terrible.' But I should say in many years, it was, unfortunately, zero."

Loh says it's important to teach math as more than mere memorization and formulas. He says this is one reason, perhaps, that the subject hasn't attracted as many American students as it could.

"Ultimately, I think that as the mathematical culture starts to reach out to more people in the United States, we could quite possibly start to see more diversity. And I think that would be a fantastic outcome," he says.

"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."

For Loh, there's beauty — and, yes, art — in the rigor of mathematics.

"Math is a cross between art and law. Law is about the reasoning and proving. And the art is because what we're trying to prove are statements that are somehow elegant," he says. "That's where the artist decides what is art."

Transcript

ARUN RATH, HOST:

In one of this year's most intense international competitions, the United States team came out on top. I'm not talking about soccer. I'm talking about math. This week, six top-ranked American students faced off against teams from over a hundred other countries at the International Mathematical Olympiad in Thailand. It was the first time the U.S. has won in 21 years. We turn to Po-Shen Loh, the lead coach for team USA, to break down the tournament for us.

PO-SHEN LOH: They have two days of competition. Each day is four-and-a-half hours, during which they do a grand total of three math problems each. I will say that it's not really a super-great spectator sport in the sense that if you are watching them, it will look like they are thinking. Although I'll assure you that inside their heads, if you could spectate, that would be quite a sport.

RATH: (Laughter). And the winning question - is that something you could say to us, or do you need a chalkboard to express that?

LOH: I should say that if you can even solve one question, you're a bit of a genius. In some sense, there's only one person in this entire Olympiad who managed to solve all six correctly. So it wasn't really that there's a winning question, so to speak. We think that actually these are interesting ways to learn math and learn about thinking because in some sense, math is much more than just a bunch of formulas. Math is a cross between art and law. Law is about the reasoning, the proving. And the art is because what we're trying to prove are statements that are somehow elegant. And what does elegant mean? Well, that's where the artist decides what is art.

RATH: Now, this is the first time the U.S. has won first place since 1994. Why has it been so long? Why the long drought?

LOH: When you compare the different countries that are oftentimes on top, I would say the most common country is unfortunately a country which is four times the population of the United States of America. And when you're pulling out a team of six people to represent the country, you have a natural disadvantage right there.

RATH: And we're talking of China, of course.

LOH: We're talking of China. There are sometimes reports that say that the United States, we're falling behind in math. But at least in this case, with the Olympiads, we have been able to prove that actually our top Americans are certainly at the level of the top people from the other countries.

RATH: This is maybe a little bit tricky to talk about, but there seems like there's a little bit of a cultural gap. Say I take my own son to an advanced math class. He's on the math team. It's disproportionately Asian-American kids like my son - not just Asians, but kids of immigrants. I'm wondering if - you know, obviously, this is just anecdotal - but is there something about mainstream American culture that may be turning other kids off math?

LOH: It could be that maybe the way that mathematics is sold in some sense is one in which it's just a bunch of formulas to memorize. And I will say that I actually think that if we are able to communicate to those of 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.

RATH: And with apologies, another awkward question because talking about different backgrounds. Your team, again, going from the names, it looks like it's all boys, right? There are no girls on the team?

LOH: So indeed, that is actually something that one hopes will change. The top 12 people in the country on the United States Math Olympiad happen to have two girls in it. One might say, oh, only 2 out of 12, that's terrible. But I should say in many years, it was, unfortunately, zero. Ultimately, I think that as the mathematical culture starts to reach out to more people in the United States, we could quite possibly start to see more diversity. And I think that that would be a fantastic outcome.

RATH: Po-Shen Loh is a professor at Carnegie Mellon University and the lead coach for the U.S. International Mathematical Olympiads team. Po-Shen, thank you very much and congratulations for the big win.

LOH: Oh, of course, thank you very much. It was great talking to you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.