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Challenging the gifted

Posted: Friday, Feb 10th, 2012

Mathcounts participants Yelin Hu (left) and Wendy Hu practice a team round of math questions after school Tuesday while team members Jesse Widner, Kevin Wu and Jenny Jin discuss their own set of questions to get ready for chapter competition.

• Mathcounts program has long created opportunity for students talented in math

In 1985, Brookings middle school math teacher Kent Kiepke had the chance to begin a local chapter of Mathcounts – a national enrichment, club and competition program that promotes middle school mathematics achievement – and had an “exceptional” student whom he thought could excel there.

Mathcounts is now in its 27th year at Mickelson Middle School. That exceptional student, Jason Stangeland (who went all the way to the national contest during his only year of Mathcounts, ’85-’86), took over as eighth-grade math teacher and Mathcounts coach when Kiepke retired 11 years ago. Saturday, Mickelson’s four-student team and individual students will compete for a trip to the state contest in March and, hopefully, to the national contest in Orlando, Fla., this May.

While Mathcounts has multiple national sponsors, 3M and the South Dakota Engineering Society are its local benefactors. Kiepke remembers 3M being involved with the Brookings program from the beginning. The company provides grant money to the Brookings program for workbooks, travel expenses and an annual celebration.

Kiepke said Mathcounts is important for students who excel at math.

“It gives a chance for those that are really talented in that area to excel and get some recognition, and some scholarships and so on,” he said.

Of the five students practicing in Stangeland’s classroom Tuesday afternoon, several said they joined Mathcounts for fun and one because his parents wanted him to join.

“I just wanted to get better at math,” said Jesse Widner, an eighth-grader who said he’s good at math but his best topic currently is science.

Everyone agreed they like the challenge of answering questions that are more advanced than they typically encounter during class.

“The challenge is one thing, and learning new concepts,” said Kevin Wu, eighth-grader. “He (Stangeland) teaches when we have questions on the problems we miss.”

Stangeland noted that this year’s participants enjoy practicing the team round more than others have.

“You can talk to other people and work together – you don’t have to do all the problems,” Jenny Jin, a seventh-grader, said of the team round.

“Yeah, because sometimes in the individual (round) you don’t know something and then you just get stuck there and you don’t know what to do. So, (in the team round) your teammates can help you, if they know it,” added Wendy Hu, a sixth-grader.

Four rounds

Mathworks has four rounds: Sprint, Target, Team and Countdown. Sprint gives individual students 40 minutes to answer 30 questions, with no calculators allowed. Target is also for individuals, but this time calculators are allowed. Students get six minutes to answer a set of two questions, and they get four sets total. Countdown is a Jeopardy-like round, where top scorers from the Sprint and Target rounds face off to verbally answer questions, competing one-on-one until a winner is named.

The Team round gives each team of four 20 minutes to answer 10 questions, and students may use calculators. This round teaches a valuable lesson, Stangeland said – especially when these bright students arrive at different answers to a question and must decide which they’ll submit to the judges.

“As a coach, that’s probably the biggest challenge,” he said. “How do you get students who are very good at mathematics and who are used to normally getting the right answer to (decide how) they’ll handle it when they get different answers?”

Mathcounts also builds problem-solving skills, Stangeland said. For the most part, his students know the math they’ll need by the time they arrive at competition. The challenge is to understand which math concepts a question requires them to use and what is the most efficient route to arriving at a solution.

Socially, Mathcounts is a way for students who excel at math to realize that plenty of other kids are just the same.

“I think, for some of them, they may have grown up feeling like, ‘Well, I’m really good at math and other people make fun of me because of that.’ So it’s nice to be around other kids who like math and who are good at it,” Stangeland said. “It’s an opportunity for them to just kind of be loose and be themselves.”

Open to all

At Mickelson, Mathcounts is open to all students. They practice Monday and Tuesday afternoons and a few Saturdays. Last Saturday, the team met for two hours in the school cafeteria to simulate a Countdown round and to enjoy the program’s annual celebration, a pizza party. But these two hours a week are not enough to win the contest, Stangeland added: Students who succeed at Mathcounts not only have an innate mathematical ability, but they put in “a tremendous amount of work” on their own time to prepare for competition.

The year’s first contest is held within individual schools. The top four scorers here become a team and they – sometimes along with individual contestants – move on to the chapter contest. Following Saturday’s chapter contest, the top two teams plus the top individuals will move on to the state contest. The top four scorers at state become South Dakota’s national Mathcounts team, and the coach of the team that won state becomes their coach. (Stangeland has coached the national team several times, including last year, when Mickelson students Alex Kimn and Ivan Li were two of the state’s top four scorers.) In total, 224 students are selected from 56 states and territories to advance to the Mathcounts National Competition.

This year’s Mickelson team includes Kevin, who competed at the state contest last year, Justin Nielson, who competed at last year’s chapter contest, and new members Jesse and Jenny. Wendy, Yelin Hu and two others will compete Saturday as individuals.

The South Dakota Engineering Society, a member of the National Society of Professional Engineers, sponsors the state and chapter contests, and SDSU’s Department of Mathematics and Statistics organizes the chapter contest when it is held in Brookings every-other year.

The Countdown Round will be the fun one to watch Saturday, and it’s open to the public. The round begins at about 2:30 p.m. inside Room 204 of the Crothers Engineering Building on the SDSU campus, with an awards presentation to follow.

Contact Charis Ubben at cubben@-brookingsregister.com.

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