The Stockholm school where math is an international adventure

How do you inspire gifted mathematics students to become even more excited about the subject? Turning it into an international event and throwing in the word ‘quest’ is a good place to start.

The Stockholm school where math is an international adventure
Four young Math Quest entrants get stuck into a task.

Learning shouldn’t be a chore, but it’s all too easy for the fun to be sucked out of difficult subjects like mathematics. It’s the indisputable truth that led to Math Quest, an annual math challenge for children aged up to 12 years old.

Founded in 1996, the three-day event is supported by the Educational Collaborative for International Schools (ECIS) and has, for 22 years running, been held at various participating international schools across Europe.

This year, it was the turn of Stockholm International School (SIS) to plan and host the event, a responsibility relished by organiser Tess Guyo (but no mean feat, with around 140 visiting students and coaches in addition to SIS’s 60-strong Math Quest team).

Around 200 students and teachers visited Stockholm International School for this year’s annual Math Quest competition.

It was Tess who first suggested SIS begin participating in Math Quest, and this year marked the eighth year the school has entered a team. It’s just one of many collaborative learning activities that SIS plans throughout the school year.

“There’s the stigma that math is difficult, so opening this activity to young minds inspires them to better understand that it’s not really that hard. It can be tough but we can do it in a fun way as well,” says Guyo, who is head of SIS’s student support department.

Find out more about Stockholm International School

Over the course of the three-day event that was held in early May, students took part in a range of mathematical challenges, including a math ‘trail’ at Tekniska Museet and a construction task which saw them build a Vasa Ship out of recycled materials. They also went on a mini-tour of the Stockholm archipelago and expended some excess physical energy at trampoline park Bounce.

“While they’re here we want them to do more than math. It’s about getting them to immerse themselves in the culture and city itself,” says Guyo.

It’s the school’s responsibility to organise the event and coach the children, but Math Quest wouldn’t be possible without the host families who provide bed and board for the young competitors.

Nancy Johnson, who has two sons currently attending SIS, couldn’t wait to welcome a pair of Math Quest entrants visiting from Lycee International School into her home.

“I’ve been in touch with their parents by phone and I’m really excited,” Nancy told The Local.

She’d already thoughtfully confirmed any dietary requirements so she could plan meals for her young visitors and organised outings for the free time they had in-between activities.

“They’re actually really busy, I’m kind of bummed out! Tonight we’ll have turkey lasagna and hang out then maybe go for a walk. We do get the opportunity to see them in action on Sunday so I’m looking forward to being there and wishing them well.”

Itay Shoham (second from right) poses with several international Math Quest entrants. 

The most important part of the event, of course, is that the children themselves enjoy taking part. And they do; just ask 11-year-old SIS student Itay Shoham who travelled to Geneva with the school’s team last year. He recalled the competition with enthusiasm and felt he gained much from the entire experience.

“It was really fun,” says the 11-year-old. “I learned from it too. It was a series of tests but also we got to have fun with math.”

That’s not to say preparation wasn’t intensive, with participating students giving up much of their own time to get their math skills in shipshape before taking part.

“We had a couple of teachers who prepared us for about three months before we went to Geneva. We did advanced math like quizzes and practice tests,” remembers Itay.

Find out more about Stockholm International School

His favourite part was the trail which is a practical outdoor application of mathematics and an insight into local history and culture.

“We got to see a bit of Geneva on the math trail which is like this course where you see the city and do math activities. It was beautiful and I really enjoyed it.”

Math Quest coach Maryam Samii who was visiting Stockholm from Berlin Brandenburg International School has been involved with the event for seven years now. She believes that one of the truly special things about Math Quest is that it brings out the best in already gifted students.

“This level of commitment, motivation and engagement is not something I can inject in them. While they are there, it’s like synergy when you put a group of highly talented kids who share the same interest in the same room.”

She adds that of almost equal importance is that the children get the chance to travel at a young age, gaining independence as well as a more intercultural outlook.

“Oh, it’s amazing. Mingling, exchanging ideas, and making new friendships — the kids discover something new in themselves in terms of personal and social interpersonal skills. It’s really valuable.”

SIS’s Tess Guyo wholeheartedly agrees. In fact, it’s one of the reasons she has been so dedicated to the event over the past eight years.

“It’s an eye opener for younger children. They see an international flow of hospitality and meet people from different cultures and backgrounds. They come to understand ‘we can live with other people, that is possible’”.

This article was produced by The Local Creative Studio and sponsored by Stockholm International School.


‘Everything is on hold’: The ups and downs of working in Sweden in summer

Office fruit disappears, trains and restaurants shut down, and it is impossible to get anything done if it involves a Swedish colleague. The Local's readers report from Sweden's deserted summer offices.

'Everything is on hold': The ups and downs of working in Sweden in summer

Many foreigners in Sweden end up deciding it’s best to do as the Swedes do and take at least three weeks off in July, as it’s almost impossible to get normal work done. But this doesn’t work for everyone.

Some would rather take time off when the climate is best for a trip back home. Others haven’t been working long enough to earn the holiday. Others are simply too new to understand what July in Swedish offices can be like. 

We asked readers who have worked through most of July to tell us about their experiences. 

READ ALSO: Why do Swedes take such long summer holidays? 

What’s it actually like in the office? 

“Life kind of stops, everything is on hold. You have no one to sign off, approve, help, assign or complete tasks,” reported Sebastian Perreira, an IT worker based in Stockholm. 

“The office is empty, chat is silent, the business is completely on pause,” agreed Sara, a marketing manager from Italy. Elie, a railway engineer from France, estimated that only a quarter of those who normally work in her office are present. 

It’s not just the human contact and the chitchat that disappears. Many workplaces put office cleaning and other basic services on pause. 

“There is a lack of sanitation in office spaces as everyone is out on vacation and also all maintenance work, such as building ventilation etc, is done during this time which makes it difficult to sit in the office space sometimes,” said one respondent, who preferred not to be identified. 

“They stopped the supply of bananas…” groaned Hongru, a statistician from China working at Linköping University. 

An engineer working in construction. Photo: Sara Winsnes/Imagebank Sweden

What about getting to the office and time off after work? 

It’s not just reduced services in offices themselves, but in the entire city. 

“Many restaurants I usually go for lunch are closed for five or more weeks during the summer,” reported José, a software engineer from Mexico, something Perreira agreed was “absolutely ridiculous”. 

Santhan, a PhD student at Umeå University, said that he had struggled with “being alone at the end of the day instead of doing evening sports or activities”. 

“Rail maintenance works are planned when the majority of Swedish people take time off,” said an electrical engineer from Ireland. 

Karan, a cyber security consultant from India, said he had been struggling with the “reduced frequency of public transport”, but Shubham, a mobile app developer, said that he actually liked the fact that public transport was “not too crowded”. 

So could anyone get anyone work done?

“It’s definitely challenging,” reported Mia from the UK, saying she felt “totally uncomfortable” with all the decisions and deadlines that “no one will really remember after their five to six weeks off”.

“Honestly, getting anything done is a struggle, so I focus on individual projects and self-development that I can do by myself. Also, even Swedes who are working aren’t really doing anything.”

“At our company, all of the developers or engineers are Swedish, so they naturally tend to go on vacation all at the same time, sometimes for up to eight weeks,” said Danny, a software developer, also from the UK. “When something goes wrong and a fix is needed urgently, we either have to hack something together without them or use the on-call engineer, which costs a lot of money.” 

One foreigner spending her first summer in Sweden working for a German multinational said she had found the main task assigned her impossible to complete.

“I am supposed to organise a board visit for the end of September. I was only able to book the hotel rooms, but not able to discuss the catering as the responsible person was on holiday. I also need to book restaurants for two evenings. But the restaurants which could fit the requirements of this important meeting are closed, I was not able to visit them, discuss the menu or complete the booking. Next time, I will start the process in March!” 

Foreigners dealing with colleagues in other countries often faced the biggest problems, as few of the their overseas colleagues understood the situation they were in. 

“Foreign clients don’t understand Swedish culture. Or worse, think the Swedes should change their culture,” said James, a construction industry manager from Scotland, who said he was struggling because “the support we need is not there and the team is struggling” and “nobody cares.”

Another foreigner who worked in software development said the big issues came when changes needed to made to another team’s software, as there were “usually no people to go to”. He expected more problems come after the summer. 

“Most of the work done during summers, or even a few weeks before summer, needs to be reexplained again and again after vacationing colleagues return back with vacation brain fog.”

Perreira said that foreigners stuck alone in offices were often left with “boredom and a feeling of guilt”. 

“You either have nothing to do, because things are very slow, or you need to feel peer pressure but there is none, since everyone is off. So you end up accomplishing very little and feel guilty afterwards.”

Some work better

Some respondents, however, said they found summer an unusually productive time. 

“I can get a lot done without the usual meetings being necessary,” said Danny. “Swedes tend to get upset if they are not invited to a meeting, but I’ve found that they don’t mind at all if you take a decision yourself over the summer.” 

Nayane, a Brazilian business intelligence manager, agreed that the best thing about the summer was “no meetings”.

“I’m working with some very specific things that require no interaction with other people, so it has been great!”  

One software tester from eastern Europe said she had benefited from “a lot of focus, way less distractions with meetings and interactions and the possibility of dedicating most of the time to technical tasks not involving communication”.

“Without being bothered, you can actually accomplish a lot of things from the backlog,” Perreira added. 

Alice, who works in delivery and analytics, agreed that summer offered an opportunity to tick items off the to-do list that she never usually had a chance of getting to.

“You get the time to do things you’re not getting to in usual circumstances, like time-consuming projects that are not top priority,” she said. 

Some find it hard to work but don’t care

Several respondents agreed that it was hard to get much done, but didn’t seem too concerned.

Charan, a data manager from India, said that despite a “slightly higher workload”, the long days meant he could both work and feel like he was on holiday. 

“It is very much possible to enjoy the Swedish summer and work simultaneously,” he said. “The long, sunny days and relatively warm weather makes it easy to work and during times of less work to do, it is also possible to connect from a holiday destination and keep working.”

Steve, a UX designer based in Stockholm, who is not using his real name took this to approach to an even greater extreme.

“It’s the best country to work during summer, especially in a corporate environment,” he said. “Since everyone else was gone and workload amounted to almost nothing, I ‘worked’, but really was just taking vacation.” 

He didn’t even stay in Stockholm during his working weeks, he said, instead enjoying “a normal travel-filled vacation”. 

A summer cottage. Photo: Fotograferna Holmberg/TT

How many will take the summer off next time like a Swede? 

Nearly two thirds of our 42 respondents had worked throughout the summer, with most of the rest taking only two weeks off. 

Several said their experiences of working this summer had convinced then to take a Swedish approach next summer. 

“I will take four weeks off next year and not feel any guilt,” said James, the Scottish construction manager. “I will take time off during the summer at the same time as the Swedish people in my office,” agreed the Irish electrical engineer. 

But others, particularly those from India, felt that as summer was the best time to be in Sweden, they wanted to save their travel months for January and February, and the post-Monsoon months in October and November, when the weather is cooler in India.

“It is the best time to be in Sweden, and the worst to be almost anywhere else in Europe,” explained Perreira. “So why waste vacation days now when you can go to Southern Europe in autumn or spring, and to Southeast Asia during the winter?” 

He said he didn’t plan to take the summer off Swedish-style unless absolutely forced to by future family circumstances. 

“Unless I start dating a Swede and end up being forced to spend half of my summer in a cottage in Skåne, nothing will change.”