MATHCOUNTS, a problem-solving version of a spelling bee that
celebrates the unpredictability of mathematics, has spread to
about 6,000 U.S. schools and continues to grow.
by Jay Mathews, Washington Post, June 8, 2004
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Melanie Wood was a solid math student, not a star, when a
teacher at her school near Indianapolis suggested she
participate in a regional competition a decade ago. It was very
short notice, she recalled, but the school's math team needed
She enjoyed the rapid-fire pace and the teamwork of the
competition. She could use her imagination, not just do things
the way her teacher instructed. But the results stunned her. She
came in first place and a month later finished first for the
state of Indiana.
Wood, now 23, said she was hooked on something called MATHCOUNTS,
which became her springboard to compete for the United States in
the International Mathematical Olympiad.
MATHCOUNTS, a very complex problem-solving version of a spelling
bee, celebrates the unpredictability and fun of mathematics.
With little publicity, it has spread to about 6,000 U.S. schools
and continues to grow. The Alexandria-based MATHCOUNTS
Foundation, a nonprofit group, had 500,000 student participants
nationally this year, said Peggy Drane, its executive director.
The program is supported by contest fees of $80 per team and
"It's very different from math class," said Sarah Olson, a
seventh-grader at Pyle Middle School in Montgomery County. "You
can come up with your own ways of solving the problems."
Alisha Seam, an eighth-grader at Longfellow Middle School in
Fairfax County, took fourth place in the Virginia state
competition this year. To her, even the hours of practice are
fun. "You don't just look at math as a bunch of numbers and
figures," she said. "We practiced five to seven hours a week."
Experts say that competition and creativity add an element of
joy to math and other subjects that can change students'
attitudes about what they are learning. "Motivating students to
do more challenging math by showing it is more interesting and
fun is a great idea," said Matthew Gandal, executive vice
president of Achieve Inc., a nonprofit educational organization.
Math teacher Barbara Burnett, whose MATHCOUNTS team at
Longfellow Middle School in Fairfax County has won the Virginia
contest each year since 2000, uses the same team problem-solving
approach in her classes. "The room's a buzzin', and everyone is
focused," she said.
The interest in math competitions has gotten so strong that
Steve Olson, Sarah Olson's father and a freelance writer based
in Bethesda, has a new book on the phenomenon: "Count Down: Six
Kids Vie for Glory at the World's Toughest Math Competition."
The book is about the American team in the 2001 International
Mathematical Olympiad, a high school competition, but it also
explores gifted education in American schools, creativity in
mathematics and how much hard work is hidden in the story of
Olson warns of the big jump from success at school math
competitions to productive work in mathematics. "A teenager can
excel in school and in competitions like the Olympiad by
becoming adept at solving problems for which an answer is
already known to exist," he said. "But to become a research
mathematician, a person has to be able to identify and make
progress on interesting problems that may not have solutions."
Nonetheless, Olson said he appreciates the way that competitions
help students such as Wood discover talents that often do not
bloom under the cookbook approach to math found in many schools.
He has become the volunteer MATHCOUNTS coach for Pyle Middle
School, helping his daughter and dozens of other students at
"MATHCOUNTS, at its best, reveals something about the esthetic
qualities of math," Olson said. "It focuses on how much these
students are engaging in an artistic activity," with the
simplest solutions to complex problems often hailed as the most
MATHCOUNTS began in 1983 as a community involvement project for
the National Society of Professional Engineers, whose members
form the bulk of the 17,000 volunteers in the program. Donald G.
Weinert, then the society's executive director and still board
chairman of the MATHCOUNTS Foundation, said he found a thriving
middle school math competition in Birmingham. He combined that
idea with elements of a high school competition in the Chicago
area that was supported by CNA insurance company, the first
financial sponsor of MATHCOUNTS. The National Council of
Teachers of Mathematics added its expertise, and the competition
now draws from all 50 states and the District.
Weinert said students with good minds, but sometimes little
athletic talent, are eager to win for their school. "The kids
get excited about something that makes them school heroes just
like the kids on the basketball or the baseball team," he said.
A typical MATHCOUNTS competition lasts about three hours. The
Sprint Round gives each student 40 minutes to answer 30
questions. The Target Round has eight questions, given two at a
time with six minutes to solve each pair. In the Team Round,
each four-person group has 10 problems to solve together. The
top individual scorers then do the Countdown Round, an oral
That part is sometimes exciting enough to be televised. ESPN2
has been running excerpts from the recent national competition
in Washington, including some scheduled to air Friday at 11 a.m.
and noon. Haitao Mao, one of Seam's teammates at Longfellow,
placed in the top four in that competition and won a $4,000
scholarship. Gregory Gauthier of Wheaton, Ill., won first place
by answering this question in less than 10 seconds: "How many
five-digit positive integers have the sum of all five digits
equal to 8 and the product of all five digits equal to 8?"
(Answer: 10 integers)
Other local schools with strong records include Montgomery
County's Takoma Park Middle School team led by Sarah Manchester
and Fairfax County's Frost Middle School team led by Maura
Sleevi. Frost eighth-grader Jack Wang placed first in Virginia
this year, which he attributed to a number of shortcuts learned
during team practices. "There are some formulas you don't learn
in class," he said.
But Sleevi, his coach, said she and other Frost teachers are
using the MATHCOUNTS approach in all of their classes. "We bring
it to everyone in the school, and all the kids get a feel for
it," she said.
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