Math Minds Meet at MathCounts

Put down your calculators and see if you can come up with the
answer to this: What is the sum of the greatest possible
three-digit integer and the greatest possible two-digit integer? If
you’re stumped, try this one: How many edges does a hexagonal prism
have?
Put down your calculators and see if you can come up with the answer to this: What is the sum of the greatest possible three-digit integer and the greatest possible two-digit integer? If you’re stumped, try this one: How many edges does a hexagonal prism have?

Brain-boggling questions like these are regular contemplations for students in the sixth, seventh and eighth grades from a handful of Morgan Hill schools. Each spring, the students compete in MathCounts, a competition similar to a spelling bee but the questions are based on arithmetic. In the months leading up to the competition, including now, the competitors are in training.

For many of them, the contest is a more creative way to improve math skills than simply learning from a textbook.

“I’ve always been really good at math, and it’s fun to do all the equations,” said Eric Andrus, a sixth-grader at El Toro Elementary School who participates in MathCounts. “This is one of the first times that math has really challenged me. It’s pretty easy at school.”

This year, 75 students from Martin Murphy, Britton and Charter School of Morgan Hill middle schools will go head to head with the brightest math minds in the region. Additionally, sixth-graders from Jackson, Paradise, Barrett, Los Paseos, Oakwood, El Toro and Nordstrom elementary schools, also all in Morgan Hill, will participate.

“Right around this age, the kids’ minds just start to open and they’re capable of so much,” said Brian Conrey, a MathCounts coach and executive director of the American Institute of Mathematics. “MathCounts is an enrichment program as well as a competition for sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders at the school, regional, state and national levels.”

The institute sponsors students participating in the program, providing funding for materials, the room students meet in and registration fees for competitions. There are no fees for the students.

Currently, schools in Gilroy and Hollister don’t participate in MathCounts, but Conrey said he hopes to get programs started at these schools soon.

“It’s like coaching Little League: If you get parents involved in it, that’s what makes it go,” he said. “If I could find someone to coordinate it, I’d be willing to come down and coach (the students).”

Morgan Hill coaches include local parents, teachers, and San Jose State University math students and professors. The coaches receive a stipend similar to that paid to school sports team coaches. Conrey did not have an exact amount.

The competition has four parts. First is the sprint round, comprised of 30 questions asked in 40 minutes. Students work alone and without a calculator.

Second is the target round, when students get four sets of two questions in six minutes. Students again work alone and without a calculator.

Third is the team round. Four students work together on 10 questions in 20 minutes, this time with calculators.

The countdown round is the last part of the competition and is similar to popular TV game shows. A question is read aloud, and the first person to come up with the answer buzzes in. Students work alone and without a calculator. ESPN televises this round.

“Some of these kids are amazing to watch. They come up with answers to complex questions doing all the math in their head,” said Conrey, who brought MathCounts to Morgan Hill three years ago. “I think this is a really good program for kids who like math and are good at math and who want to develop it further.”

Students prepare for competitions by working on problems from past competitions and by using workbooks the national MathCounts organization provides.

“I like to teach some ‘big picture’ problems that are very different from what students learn in school,” Conrey said. “If they can solve the big picture problems, they can solve a wider range of problems.”

Eric, apparently, is not easily challenged when it comes to math. After agreeing to do an impromptu equation, the sixth-grader multiplied 397,425 by 981,500 – without using a calculator. Halfway through figuring out the solution, Eric casually mentioned the equation was one of the longest he has ever done. Nevertheless, he kept multiplying, unfazed. And in about three minutes, he produced the correct answer: 390,072,637,500.

“My favorite things to do are fractions, multiplication and geometry,” he said. “The stuff I’m not good at I really have to take time to do the problems, like probability trees.”

An example of a probability tree, as explained by Eric, is when there is a certain amount of blue cubes and yellow cubes mixed together in a bag. Then you have to figure the probability of pulling out a blue cube or a yellow cube, and after that, the probability of doing it again based on whether the first cube was replaced in the bag.

Eric said he wasn’t afraid of competition and he is “very excited” to do it. The only thing he said he might worry about are what he refers to as “math masters,” students his age who can do some of the problems faster.

Oh, and for the record, the answers to the questions asked at the beginning of the story are 1,098 and 18 edges, respectively.

For more information on MathCounts, go to www.mathcounts.org.

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