In a math classroom at the Naval Academy's Rickover Hall on a Saturday afternoon, Jeffrey Chang demonstrated to a trio of professors his knowledge of the highly algebraic principles associated with magic squares.
First he gave a formula for finding the sums of the rows, columns and diagonals of odd-numbered magic squares. (For the mathematically challenged, magic squares are little boxes filled with numbers that, when added horizontally, vertically or diagonally, equal the same number. Mathematicians have a jolly good time with them. It's a mathematician thing. You wouldn't understand.)
Jeffrey showed considerable knowledge of advanced algebra in giving the formulas, but he stumbled a bit when one of the professors asked him if he had solved a magic square with five rows and five columns.
"Not really," Jeffrey conceded. But give him a break. Jeffrey is only 12. A seventh-grader at Takoma Park Middle School in Montgomery County, Jeffrey put out a Brobdingnagian effort that earned him first place in the masters round at the statewide MathCounts competition and a spot on the Maryland team that placed sixth at the national competition last month.
Joining Jeffrey on the team were Samir Sahu of Southampton Middle School in Harford County, Chrissy Liu of Thomas Johnson Middle School in Frederick County and Gene Ko -- a teammate of Jeffrey's at Takoma Park. If you notice this group seems distinctly Asian and East Indian, you'd be right. But if you're inclined to xenophobia, don't fret. Do as I did. Go home, get down on your knees and thank God that somewhere along the line the ancestors of these talented kids immigrated to America. If they hadn't, Jeffrey, Samir, Chrissy and Gene might still be in China, India or Korea and eventually use their math and science talents to help those countries.
"I've been working with these competitions for 10 years or so, and there's a very high percentage of Asians that win," said Werner Kloetzli Jr., a self-employed Ellicott City civil engineer who volunteers to help out Robin Steele, who coordinates the contest.
"Somebody talked me into it," Steele said of being the one who brings the competition together. Putting together MathCounts contests is a year-round job, Steele says.
"Primarily it takes organization, and I'm reasonably well-organized," she said. The competition has been around 14 years and is for seventh- and eighth-graders. It is sponsored by the National Society of Professional Engineers and its state chapter, the Maryland Society of Professional Engineers.
The competition starts with a preliminary round in which contestants answer questions on a written test. The top four move on to the masters round. The last round is the countdown round, in which contestants have 45 seconds to correctly answer such questions as:
Find the arithmetic mean of one-sixth and three-eighths.
How many days are in 8 2/7 weeks?
Find the interest on $12,000 at 0.7% for one month.
Jenny walked 16 miles in five hours and 36 minutes. How many minutes did it take her to walk one mile?
And those were the easy questions. The youngsters answered them without the help of a calculator. How did you do? Could you answer them? If not, you'd be out of there. Students answering correctly move on until only two contestants are left. When the dust cleared, there was only one student left who had answered all his questions correctly and stood ready to be crowned countdown round champion: Jeffrey Chang. Was there no stopping this kid?
"I'm not used to winning the countdown," Jeffrey said demurely after the competition, using just a dash of some old down-home-aw-shucks humility. He wouldn't predict how the Maryland team would do at the nationals and has no idea what he is going to do with his math talent, which he developed during a stint at the Johns Hopkins University's Center for Talented Youth.
Chrissy, 13, placed second in the masters round and said she is considering a career in architecture. She developed her math skills under the rigorous tutelage of Nick Diaz, the coach of Thomas Johnson's team. Liu said she transferred to Thomas Johnson to be in Diaz's class.
Diaz is a Cuban immigrant who came to the United States in
1960. He has a strong math background from Cuban and American schools.
"I gravitated toward math because someone found out I was good at doing it," Diaz said. These days he coaches other kids who are good at math, drilling them throughout the year to get them ready for the MathCounts battles.
"It's not the competition that helps them," Diaz claims. "It's the preparation for the competition that helps them. You do not become competent by competing. You become competent by preparing to compete."
Those are, indeed, words of wisdom, no matter what the area of competition is.
Gregory P. Kane's column appears on Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays.
Pub Date: 6/01/96