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For math whizzes, victory equals respect
By Hermione Malone, Globe Correspondent
The anatomy of the school champ has traditionally been more brawn than
brain. It was the quarterback or the basketball captain or track star that
got the accolades.
Rarely was it the student who could prove theorems in record speed.
But in ever-increasing numbers, math whizzes are not only getting the chance
to best each other, but are receiving recognition that runs neck-and-neck
''I've been in schools where ... the results of the math team are announced
with the same pride as the results of the football game,'' said Glenda
Lappan, president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.
As the school year comes to an end, the academic competition circuit nears a
Last week, a Massachusetts team won first place at the Mathcounts national
championship in Washington. The competition is open to seventh- and
eighth-graders nationwide, and winners receive scholarships, free trips,
medals, and notebook computers.
Massachusetts also had two winners this year in the more rigorous USA
Mathematical Olympiad, which identifies and encourages the most creative
high school math students in the nation. Paul Valiant, 15, and Reid Barton,
16, were among eight national winners who will head to the International
Mathematical Olympiad in Romania in July.
''I think that the kids benefit by going to these competitions to see the
other kids, to spur them on,'' said Pat Daley, math department chairwoman at
the Fay School in Southborough, where David Kim was one of four
eighth-graders on the championship Mathcounts team. ''It gives them a
challenge and shows them there are kids better than them.''
Besides Kim, the other members of the championship team were Adam Donovan,
13, a student at the Lincoln School in Lincoln; and Mark Lipson, 14, and
Elizabeth Marcil, 13, students at the William Diamond School in Lexington.
Evagrio Mosca, the team's coach, said a greater emphasis on mathematics in
schools has meant more math clubs and competitions.
''They have doubled since the early '80s,'' said Mosca, math department
chairman at William Diamond Middle School in Lexington. ''I think that towns
have put a priority on having academic extracurricular activities that can
help stretch kids in academic areas as well as athletics.''
Such interest has increased over the past decade, say some, because American
students are trying to catch up mathematically to their foreign
Lappan said that though the very top US math students are ''extraordinarily
well prepared,'' others struggle to compete in a worldwide arena.
''Our students are not as a whole competing favorably against their economic
counterparts,'' she said. ''But, kids are taking math longer, which is
wonderful, and some states are even requiring more math.''
A key element to programs like Mathcounts and the Olympiad: a well-developed
instructional portion to accompany the competition.
Mathcounts, a free curriculum, is sent to 35,000 schools nationwide. Whether
schools choose to form a team for competition is up to them, but the
materials can be used in math instruction regardless.
Some schools ''use competitions as a motivator, sort of a carrot at the end
of the stick,'' said Camy Rowan, executive director of the Mathcounts
The program gives high achievers a chance to pursue those skills, Rowan
''It's an opportunity for kids to be recognized for achievement in math. We
don't do nearly enough of that,'' she said. ''It provides them with an
opportunity to pursue an interest or talent in mathematics.''
Unlike Mathcounts, which officials say ''casts a wide net'' to get students
of varying skill levels involved, contests like the USA Mathematical
Olympiad aim ''to discover and challenge secondary-school students with
outstanding mathematical talent - a combination of superior ingenuity,
knowledge, and computational expertise.''
The Olympiad draws competitors from a three-round elimination. This year
341,000 students took the American Mathematics Competitions high school
exam. Of that number, 6,000 advanced to the second round and 170 to the
final round - a six-hour, six-question test.
''It's been a great experience for me,'' said Valiant, a Milton Academy
sophomore. ''Of course the tests are hard, but I learned a lot.''
In early June, Valiant, Barton, and the other six students will be honored
in Washington, followed by an intense four-week summer program at the
University of Nebraska-Lincoln. In July, the team will try to best its 1998
third-place standing at the International Mathematical Olympiad in
Promoting the idea that students can excel in math goes beyond raising the
skill level, say teachers.
Competition ''takes the stigma away from enjoying math because more kids can
believe it is fun and challenging,'' Mosca said. ''Once you take a way the
stigma and the fear, kids can achieve.''
Valiant, who also competed on the US team at last year's international
Olympiad in Taiwan, keeps in touch via e-mail with competitors he meets.
''After tests we'll estimate scores and ask each other questions about
problems,'' he said. ''It's a good group of friends.''
Youths have to feel that they won't be treated like nerds for excelling in
the classroom as opposed to the gymnasium, Lappan said.
''We have to make it OK for our kids to be smart in math,'' she said.
© Copyright 1998 Globe Newspaper Company.