Manhattan Mathcounts

Part of what I wrote in the community involvement section of my NSF Graduate Research Fellowship application was about teaching math, science, and engineering topics to students. I’ve written about the math modeling classes I taught at Splash at Columbia and MIT last fall. I’ll be teaching at Columbia Spring Splash (classes to be determined) and at MIT Spark (one class about atmospheric soundings, one about Soviet ballet).

Teaching is definitely the kind of outreach I find most exciting. I like interfacing directly with students, even though there’s still a lot that I’m figuring out about how to teach these kinds of classes well. This weekend, though, I participated in a different kind of math volunteering by working at Manhattan Chapter Mathcounts.

I had initially signed up to volunteer thinking I would mostly grade, but the person who runs the chapter asked if anyone could come early to help setup and register teams as they arrived. That’s how I ended up at Stuyvesant HS — 40 plus minutes away from my apartment — at 7:20 on Saturday morning. There was less setup to do than we expected, but once registration started, things were a blur for about an hour. We had a bit of a break between that and the start of grading because the first round, Sprint, is a 40 minute test, but we had to assign schools to graders and distribute score sheets.

I’m not sure why (because I’d done Mathcounts? because I was there and wanted to be helpful?), but I ended up distributing score sheets and giving instructions about them. When proctors brought up completed tests, I helped hand them out to the appropriate graders. (What this looked like: calling out the school name until the right graders raised their hands. After a couple of rounds I had figured out where some of the schools’ graders were, but others I had a lot of trouble remembering.)

Between rounds of tests arriving, I was one of three graders at a table responsible for two schools. Because I was passing out the tests, I mostly ended up double-checking for both schools instead of doing initial grading passes on the exams.

The variety of work suited me well. I would have been happy just grading, of course, but working registration and passing out tests to graders let me meet coaches and more of the other graders that I would have if I’d mostly stuck to grading. It was a little odd to be one of the few people that others came to with questions when the chapter coordinator was busy — it’s my first year at this chapter, and I haven’t helped with anything related to Mathcounts in eight years — but I enjoyed it, and I could usually answer.

I was able to stay and watch Countdown (unofficial, bracket format with 16 students) and the Awards Ceremony. Watching Countdown was fun, and I have thoughts on it, but I’ll hold off until all chapter competitions are done and I can talk about some specific problems. Also, if you’re interested results from the competition will be posted here in the next couple of days. Some highlights, if I recall correctly: Hunter College did really well (six students in the top 16, and three or four of those in the top 10), there were two perfect scores (!), and there were three or four girls in the top 10.

Mathcounts isn’t outreach in the way that events like Splash or the middle school math workshops I’ve taught over summers in Oklahoma are. But it’s a really important way for middle school students to encounter math and problem solving and to meet other students who think working on hard problems is fun. Mathcounts gave me mathematical community (both within Oklahoma and elsewhere in the US) in middle school and gave me motivation to explore areas of math that I either hadn’t before (number theory) or hadn’t fully appreciated (geometry). I want to facilitate those types of experiences in any way I can.

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