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Mathematics Contest Has a Message: Number-Crunching Is Fun and a Valuable Skill

Sunday, February 16, 2014
Hanover — The final round of yesterday’s math contest put two students at a time in the “hot seats,” trying to best each other on a series of timed questions. But they weren’t the only ones figuring. Although they weren’t competing in the round, dozens of other “mathletes” at the Lebanon Regional Mathcounts Meet also tried their hands, some “writing” on the tables using their fingers, others tapping away on calculators. The auditorium at Dartmouth College’s Thayer School of Engineering was so quiet that the merest creak of a chair seemed startling.

Grace Li, a Richmond Middle School student, was one of eight students who made it into the “countdown” round. At first, it seemed Li couldn’t be beat, coming up with correct answers so quickly that the crowd gasped. But after holding the lead against several competitors, she was bumped by Justin Liu, of Cardigan Mountain School. Liu was unseated by another student, and on it went until Li’s teammate, Mindy Wu, won the round.

The contest, rescheduled after last week’s snowstorm, drew more than 40 students from Grafton and Sullivan counties. For many local schools, yesterday marked the first day of winter break. But as fat snowflakes fell outside, homeschoolers and public and private school students alike spent the morning, pencils in hand, tackling math problems.

The competition, which includes arithmetic, algebra, geometry and calculus, is sponsored by Mathcounts, a national coaching and competition program that promotes middle school achievement in math. The organization represents a team effort between school teachers and engineers.

“The engineering and science professions realize that we need to encourage kids” to get into math, said Len Zabilansky, of the Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory.

The coaches this year include teachers, engineers and at least one student. Michael Hong, a ninth-grader at Cardigan Mountain School, won the regional competition last year. This year, he’s coaching the Cardigan Mountain team.

Mathcounts students compete individually or as part of a team. Some schools hold contests and select the top scorers to compete in the regional event; others take volunteers.

“It’s a nice mix,” said Ruth Conwell, who proctors the competition and is co-coordinator of the regional chapter.

The teams with the highest scores yesterday — Richmond Middle School, Lyme School and Crossroads Academy — will go to the state meet next month in Plymouth. About a dozen other students who took part in the contest will also be tapped to attend.

The winners of that competition will go on to compete at the national level.

The annual competition is a way to show that math can be fun and exciting, Zabilansky said. It’s also an effort to give talented academic students “the same opportunities and recognition” that athletes receive.

Zabilansky, the Lebanon regional coordinator, has been with the contest for about 15 years. With so many choices of extracurricular activities available to students, it seemed only the most avid “mathletes” were taking part.

“Kids are either serious, or they’re not playing,” he said. To encourage more students to become involved, organizers increased the number of spots available in the contest. Now, schools can send a four-person team and six alternates.

Several students yesterday said they find themselves juggling their commitments to sports and math team. Wu plays with Lightning Soccer Club and in a recreational basketball league. The school math team meets on Mondays, she said. “I go when I can.”

Students yesterday gave all sorts of reasons for taking part in Mathcounts. Some enjoy working as a part of a team; others, such as Fiona Sweeney, like the novelty.

A seventh-grader at Crossroads Academy, Sweeney first competed in the Mathcounts contest last year. “I thought it was cool to be exposed to problems that I wouldn’t have seen in the regular curriculum,” she said.

She also cherishes the chance to meet students with common interests. “Not everyone likes math,” she said.

Yesterday’s final “countdown” round consisted of questions projected onto a screen and read aloud. It started off with a sample question: A 3-ounce can of tomato sauce costs $1.68. In cents, what is the price per ounce?

“It’s probably not one of the tough ones,” said Conwell, a math teacher at Pembroke (N.H.) Academy. And she was right. A few of the official questions were so challenging that neither student answered correctly, and Conwell joked that the answer was, “Who cares?”

At the end, she asked the students, coaches, family and friends who gathered for the final round, “Has this been fun for those of you sitting out there?” They clapped loudly in response.

In addition to being a good time, organizers also hope the contest will help students hone their problem solving skills, Zabilansky said. And, he added, it’s a way to address the perennial math class question: “Why are we doing this?”

“Yes, we do use this,” said Zabilansky, a research civil engineer. “Carpentry has a hammer. We have math.”

Several students yesterday said they’ve already discovered practical uses for the subject.

Duolan Guo, an eighth-grader at Richmond Middle School, uses his skills to solve problems in day-to-day life. And Ryllie Brown, an eighth-grader at Claremont Middle School, relies on math at the mall, for “going into a store and being able to (understand) the discounts.”

Aimee Caruso can be reached at or 603-727-3210.

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