At these competitions, it's ready, set . . . calculate Students find challenge in math meets HOWARD COUNTY EDUCATION

January 11, 1993|By Lan Nguyen | Lan Nguyen,Staff Writer

Heads were bent and eyes were fixed.

Time was ticking, and more than 100 students were scratching their heads and their papers, figuring out such questions as, "What is the degree-measure of the acute angle of a rhombus in which the altitude from the vertex of an obtuse angle bisects a side of the rhombus?"

Throughout Howard High's cafeteria, where last week's county-wide math competition was held, students mumbled among themselves and worked furtively to finish their problems. Across one table, Atholton junior Jack Lu pondered a trigonometry problem.

"I know this is a 2," he said, pointing to the answer, "but I'm not sure on this one. If I had my calculator -- wait, I do have my calculator, but I can't use it."

"I have a feeling this one's zero," said Atholton senior Kenny Lin, his teammate sitting next to him.

"Five minutes!" someone yelled.

"Thank you," Atholton junior Ellen Barth said sarcastically. "Anybody want to help me out with No. 4? I'd greatly appreciate it."

Eight math competitions are held throughout the year at different high schools, and more than 100 students compete each time in individual and team rounds. Students who score well in individual competitions are eventually picked to be on a county team that participates in the Capitol Area Math Meet, which draws teams from Washington-area schools.

The same students go on to the America Regions Math League at Penn State in May, where they compete with the top students in the country. But before the Penn State meet, the students square off with professionals and Ph.D.s in math, as well as alumni, in a scrimmage. People from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the Applied Physics Lab come, and "they take it very seriously -- the adults," said Charles Koppelman, Wilde Lake's math team sponsor.

Some students on math teams do well in school and in competitions. Jeremy Ou, who ranks highest among competing students, scored 700 on the math portion of the Scholastic Aptitude Test when she was in the seventh grade. The 17-year-old Wilde Lake senior also is a member of the school orchestra and the It's Academic team.

But not all students on the math teams are whizzes. Some are taking lower-level math classes and come to learn more about math. And others, including Wilde Lake student Raj Adlakha, are freshmen who are getting their feet wet in competition. "It's pretty fun," he said. "And it's good competition."

And not all students on the math teams are "nerds," either. Some are active in soccer, tennis, even football, at their schools.

"More people should come out and see what it's about, then they'll see what we do," said Oakland Mills junior Walter Gassaway, who runs indoor and outdoor track.

Math team members understand why students can have misconceptions. "I think people really wonder why we would want to do more work," said Ellen Barth, who practices math once a week after school with about 15 other students. "I sometimes wonder myself."

Math teams were created in high schools to help students overcome the fear of math, said Charles Levie, a math supervisor.

"The idea is for all the kids to get into a deeper level of problem-solving, no matter what math level they're at, so when they go into the SATs, these problems seem easy," he said. "It's interesting seeing kids grow from freshman to senior years and see them progress as problem-solvers. We find that no one is perfect."

Some questions are easy: "I am thinking of a number. If the number is increased by 15, and the result is then multiplied by 8, I'll get 160. What number am I thinking of?" The answer: 5.

Others require students to think harder: "When 26! = 26x25x... x2x1 is factored into prime powers, what is the exponent of 5?" The answer: 6.

"Half of the questions are basic, and half of the questions are difficult," Mr. Levie said.

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