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Reliving Glory Days

written Friday, 1/5/2007

Sixteen years have passed since I last competed in a math contest. I often credit my participation in high school math contests with a tremendous boost in confidence and a deep appreciation for secondary math. I know my contest successes opened some doors for me, since colleges didn’t have many other reasons to pay me much interest.

However, that was half my lifetime ago. As far as my math interest is concerned, the movie cliché I resemble most is the washed up ex-athlete whose glory days are long gone, and now maintains a low-key role in life trying to impart wisdom upon young ‘uns who don’t appreciate how awesome he once was. Melodramatic as that may be, I certainly didn’t enter teaching with hopes of reliving past triumphs.

However, I have dreamt of inspiring at least a few students in the same way my geometry teacher Mr. Halliday inspired and motivated me. I remember him convincing me to compete in a math contest when I was a ninth grader in his class. I also remember spending the weeks prior to the contest trying to think of excuses to back out, fearing that I would fail and let him down.

I know that my PreCalculus student Samane had similar fears leading up to the American Mathematical Society’s “Who Wants to Be a Mathematician” contest today. This contest was held amongst the Joint Mathematics Meetings taking place this weekend in New Orleans, an event that 5,000 mathematicians are to attend.

After emailing some practice problems to Sam last week, she wrote back about being very nervous, saying, “I don't think I am as smart or as bright as you think.”

Born and raised in Iran, she moved with her family to the US two years ago while her mother studies to become a doctor. (Sam is fluent in English). When I heard about this contest a couple months ago, I was to select two students to take a qualifying test. I immediately thought of Sam. There are probably several other students who currently possess more math knowledge. However, Sam demonstrates a real desire to learn, and she does so quickly. After I sent in the qualifying tests, Sam was the only Lusher student invited to participate in today’s contest.

While visiting my mom, grandma, and friends in CA for a week (a great vacation, by the way), I dug up some old contests in my mom’s garage. The papers date back to my math “glory days.” Another week still remained in our winter break when I returned to New Orleans last Saturday (my birthday!). Sam and I spent about 7 hours practicing over two days in a local coffee shop. In my experience, contest problems often don’t require very advanced mathematical knowledge. Instead, many times they challenge one’s problem solving skills. They require contestants to use basic knowledge in clever and interesting ways. There are some skills in which Sam is not (yet) very strong, especially in the fields of trigonometry and probability. Rather than try to cram in too many emergency trig and probability lessons, I thought our study time would be better spent just getting her accustomed to reading and interpreting “typical” contest problems, which are far different from what one finds in standard math textbooks.

I think this was a good plan. Sam possessed the requisite knowledge for many of the problems I gave her, but struggled to grasp what the unusual questions were asking. We also discussed the rules and strategy for this particular contest, which is modeled after game shows such as “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.”

Only eight total students would be participating, divided equally into two separate games. In each game, eight multiple-choice questions would be projected one at a time onto a big screen for the contestants and audience to see. Each question would have a time limit, and contestants would use a remote control to secretly signal in their answers. The point value of the questions would increase gradually from 100 points to 800 points. Of course, the person with the highest point total at the end of the game would be declared the winner.

An interesting twist to this game is that each contestant would get one opportunity to signal for help from an audience member – presumably, their respective math teachers. For any given question, no more than one contestant would be allowed to request help. I reminded Sam that answering the single 800 point question is worth more than the first three questions combined, and we agreed that she’d wait until the last question before using my assistance.

When we arrived at the contest location this morning, Sam was clearly very nervous. I tried to distract her with a few relatively simple math problems, but most of all I tried to reassure her that there was absolutely nothing to lose. By simply participating, she should be able to hold her head up high.

Sam played in the first of the two games. The other represented schools are fairly well reputed, as far as I know, including McDonough 35 (revered former magnet school), Jesuit and Academy of the Sacred Heart (Catholic private schools), and a couple high schools from Mandeville and Covington (generally more affluent areas north of Lake Pontchartrain). Furthermore, I believe Sam was the only sophomore in the competition, playing against juniors and seniors. Shortly before the start of the game, I discretely pointed to one of the other contestants who had stepped onto the stage early. I whispered to Sam, “See that guy? You can beat him.”

Sam started off quite well, holding a lead after the first five or six questions. However, she missed the seventh question, which instantly dropped her into a tie for third place. I hoped to get her attention at that point, so I could motion for her to request my help on the last question. However, she didn’t need me to remind her what to do. Two contestants had already received assistance from their helpers. As soon as the eighth question was projected onto the screen, Sam immediately buzzed her “help” button. At that point, all contestants were allowed most of the allotted two minutes to work the problem themselves, but the countdown clock would stop as soon as it reached five seconds left. Sam would then get the opportunity to discuss the problem with me for 30 seconds, and change her initial response if she chose.

I worked the geometry problem myself, pleased that it fell well within my areas of expertise. I checked and double-checked my work. When it came time for us to talk, I found that Sam had chosen an incorrect answer, so she fixed the mistake following our discussion. It turned out that all the other contestants answered incorrectly, so Sam was declared the winner!

Sam and the winner of the second game returned to the stage for one final question, for which a correct answer would earn a $2000 cash prize! No help from the audience would be permitted this time. Unfortunately, Sam didn’t get this question right (The other winner did). Nonetheless, this whole experience was a fantastic success! Sam’s first-place prize was a TI-89 graphing calculator – the same model I bought a couple years ago for $140. Not too shabby. Even more important, she gets the prestige and recognition of being a very smart math student.

I am so proud of Samane. Too often in this job I’ve felt guilty that a disproportionate amount of my effort is spent addressing underperforming students, while my high performers are not being adequately challenged. Exposing one of my top students to opportunities such as this one is extremely rewarding for me. In the weeks leading up to the contest, I assured Sam that I would be proud of her just for participating, regardless of the outcome. I can’t deny, though, that her first-place win is an absolute highlight of my professional career. I can’t help but think back to my own experiences, and dream that this will help an extremely talented girl believe in her own tremendous potential.

I hope Sam doesn’t ever again question whether she’s as bright or smart as I know she is.

For the record, here are the questions and answers to this year’s contest.
Photos from this morning’s contest, including the 800-point question and a shot of the “leader board.” Unfortunately no one from Sam’s family was able to attend, but thankfully a couple of her friends were. Joining us were Dasha, a very bright exchange student from the Ukraine, and that Photoshopping-backstabber Robert!