Students make it to ‘Super Bowl of adolescent math’
Middle school math tourney comes to city, and Mass. kids are stars
The spotlight was circling. The ESPN cameras were rolling. And when they were announced, the four of them ran in to the screaming cheers of the hall like the John, Paul, George, and Ringo of Massachusetts middle school math.
In the world of mathletes, Massachusetts has long been a rock star, and this year’s foursome — Richard Huang and Maxwell Wang, both of Acton, and Nathan Ramesh and Jeffrey Chang of Lexington — looked like strong contenders for the national championship Friday as they headed into the finals of the Raytheon Mathcounts National Competition, the Super Bowl of adolescent math.
And, for the first time in the history of the competition, the Massachusetts contingent had home field advantage. This year’s finals were held at the Sheraton Boston on Friday.
But as the Fab Four trotted into the hall, Josh Frost, a teacher at the Jonas Clarke Middle School in Lexington who has been the coach of the Massachusetts team for the past nine years, knew they would have some stiff competition from their rivals, the Indiana team that is led by his buddy, Trent Tormoehlen. To emphasize what was at stake, Tormoehlen had been wearing a Colts jersey around the hotel.
The Mathcounts competition begins each year in the fall, with 100,000 middle school students. After a series of competitions at the regional and state levels, the competitors are winnowed down to the top four students from each US state and territory, and they each receive a free trip to the finals.
After the morning’s written exam, it looked good for Frost’s kids from Massachusetts. Ramesh and Chang had each advanced to the “Countdown,” where the top 12 students compete in a head-to-head, high-speed knockout bracket that is broadcast live on ESPN3.
The problem was that Indiana had sent three kids to the final 12, and when they announced the team championship, the Hoosier state took top prize. Massachusetts, which won in 2012 and 2013, settled for third. (In 2013, Alec Sun of Lexington captured the individual crown, which comes with a $20,000 college scholarship.)
Lou DiGioia, the executive director of Mathcounts, said that the goal of the competition is to make each of the 224 kids who make it to the national competition feel like a champion, something that is often missing from the math world.
“There’s a lot of emphasis on athletics, but we don’t do enough to recognize academic excellence,” he said. “This event is to show that math is cool.”
But, of course, not everyone can be the national champion, and the stakes are high, so as the “Countdown” began, DiGioia tried to relax the dozen competitors by leading them through some cute personal questions, and reading some answers to questionnaires they had filled out. And here, at least, the Massachusetts team clearly won.
One question had asked the kids if they would choose to have the ability to read minds or stop time. Chang had written that he would choose the ability to stop time because he could already read minds.
When DiGioia asked if this was true, Chang said, frankly, “Yes, I can read the word ‘minds.’ ”
On a question about whether they’d choose to go back in time or into the future, Ramesh had chosen to go back in time. When DiGioia asked how far back in time he would need to go to be the best mathematician, Ramesh answered: “A couple minutes.”
Unfortunately, this was a math competition, and not a sarcasm competition. Ramesh and Chang were each eliminated in the first of the knockout rounds, which proceeded so quick-fire that DiGioia was rarely able to get through the incredibly complicated questions before someone would ring in with the answer.
As the rounds advanced, through circumferences and integers, whole numbers and sequences, it was finally down to two: Andy Xu, of South Carolina, who had received the highest score on the written exam; and Kevin Liu, last year’s runner-up. From Indiana.
They battled back and forth, interrupting DiGioia time and again with their answers, until Liu was sitting on a 3-2 lead for the best of seven.
“How many arithmetic progressions of six increasing terms include the terms 15 and 20?” DiGioia began to ask, getting as far as the word “six” when Xu buzzed in.
“Two,” he said, incorrectly, giving Liu a chance to think it through for a few seconds. He didn’t need them.
Liu looked off into space for just a moment, thinking, and then answered: 15.
“Fifteen is the correct answer!” DiGioia said, and the hall broke into thunderous applause as a new king of middle school math was crowned.
As Tormoehlen, the Indiana coach, made his way to the stage, he was stopped by Frost, the Massachusetts coach, who gave his friend, and friendly rival, a big hug.
After the competition, Nathan Ramesh, the Lexington 14-year-older, was enjoying being recognized by the rest of the competitors. Making the final 12 was cool, he said, though with all the excitement he couldn’t even remember what he’d gotten right and what he’d gotten wrong.
“At least I got knocked out by the person who won, so that’s pretty cool,” he said.