Decimals Fly in DC as "Mathletes" Face Off in National Showdown
They wolfed down waffles while working equations in New Jersey, drilled on decimals in California and picked apart Pythagoras in Massachusetts.
Now, after months of practice and white-knuckle elimination rounds, the United States' top "mathletes" will face each other this week in the nation's most prestigious math "bee", the Raytheon MATHCOUNTS® National Competition in Washington, D.C.
"There's nothing else like it," Lou DiGioia, the contest's executive director, said. "Not only is the level of academic challenge at the competition incredible, but for students to meet peers who are just as passionate about math as they are – it's really a life-changing experience."
The 224 finalists come from middle schools all over the nation, from Makawao, Hawaii to Montville, Maine. They've beaten out some 100,000 students from more than 5,000 schools that participate in the national MATHCOUNTS Competition Program.
Beginning Thursday, teams will compete on a written test and in a live, "bee" style, head-to-head contest at the Marriott Wardman Park Hotel for the title of National Team Champion.
Raytheon's sponsorship is part of the company's MathMovesU® program, which encourages U.S. middle school students in math and science through interactive learning programs, contests, events, scholarships, tutoring programs and more.
More than six million students have participated in MATHCOUNTS since its creation in 1983.
The competition fosters a love of math at a time when the United States needs more students to enter careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
MATHCOUNTS participants represent all 50 states, Washington, D.C., the U.S. territories, and schools from the Department of Defense and State Department.
This week's competitors have risen through contests at the school, local chapter, and state level. The top four students from each state and U.S. territory earn the right to compete at the national competition.
Waffles on Saturdays
The national competition can be an exciting but nerve-wracking experience for kids just entering their teen-age years.
Alyce Doehner, a MATHCOUNTS coach at Thomas R. Grover and Community Middle School in West Windsor and Plainsboro, N.J., encourages her students to find a calming thought to take the anxiety away.
Doehner prepares New Jersey's top four Mathletes for the national competition with four-and-a-half hour practice sessions at her dining-room table every Saturday morning.
She mixes in brunch – sometimes cereal, sometimes pancakes. At one practice, the group of seven downed 40 waffles as they calculated angles and square roots.
Doehner, who's been coaching since 2002, said several of her former students have stayed on to mentor the younger Mathletes and take part in the Saturday-morning math practices.
"They loved MATHCOUNTS so much, they wanted to continue as coaches," Doehner said.
Pizza and prime numbers
Several coaches are longtime supporters of the competition.
Josh Frost, a math teacher in Lexington, Mass., has been organizing MATHCOUNTS teams for 15 years. His students have made it to the national competition for the last 13 years.
Frost's team practices in his classroom at Jonas Clarke Middle School two to three days per week, including every Friday night. Practices can last four to five hours with a break for pizza.
Despite teaching math for going on two decades, Frost said he never ceases to be impressed by his student Mathletes.
"Three of them are without question smarter than me at math, and the fourth probably is as well – I'm just still getting to know him," he said.
Not every child will grow up to be a mathematics professor or an engineer, but the experience prepares children for any field of study, DiGioia said.
He should know – a former competitor himself, he went on to earn a degree in American Government.
"You might not be asked on a daily basis what's the hypotenuse of a right triangle, but math is about problem-solving," DiGioia said. "No matter where you end up, the more successful you are at solving problems, the more successful you'll be in life."
Last Updated: 10/30/2014