Twelve-year-old 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 another member.
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 private grants.
"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 every genius.
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 practices.
"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 beautiful.
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 head-to-head competition.
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.