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Math Challengers – Reflection

March 6, 2012

After making a couple of posts on Math Challengers I thought it would be a good idea to do a bit of reflection.

First of all it was great to see so many mathematics students come in to the lecture theater at the University of British Columbia to compete in Math Challengers. There was some genuine excitement in the room as participants filed in. The nervous energy was coupled with the excitement of a competition and the fear of the unknown, especially for those of us who had not been there. I felt really blessed to have a chance to go with someone who had taken a team there several times. Mr Williams was an awesome mentor.

While the regional meetings do prepare students for what is to come there is nothing like the provincials. Sitting in an actual lecture theater was something new for most students. The idea that over 200 students may be in a class was a bit of a shock and a far cry from the reality of even the largest K-12 classroom. As one student noted, “I can hardly see the board.”  This aspect of the competition was enough to make the trip worthwhile for students.

The competition itself is divided into four rounds. The first two rounds, Blitz and  Bullseye,  give students a chance to answer questions individually. The third round is one of my favorites when students have a chance to work as a team to solve mathematics problems. In many ways I think this round is closer to the nature of how “real” mathematicians work as people can bounce ideas off each other, propose solutions and come up with the best possible response. The final round, Face Off, is by far the most exciting as two students compete in a Jeopardy style contest with the fastest response winning the round.

The questions of the contest range from easy to “how did you do that” difficult. I was amazed how quickly students were able to solve questions in the buzzer round. In many cases I had not read the question before the response was given. It was truly inspiring.

I was asked by one person at the event what makes the students who go to these events “different?” How do they do so well? Reflecting on this I think there are two main factors.

  1. The students have a vast repertoire of general mathematics knowledge. The know their “basic facts”, square roots, prime numbers and basic geometry. While some people may know this well these students know it like a language and can call upon it at will.
  2. They can think beyond the lower level of Blooms Taxonomy. The students are able to take this general mathematics knowledge and synthesize it into new information. They can apply it to solve unique problems. In some cases the problems are similar to ones they have seen before but in many cases the problems may be unique and this calls for far more than just basic recall.

One may ask what I learned from the competition. While I would not say that I have improved mathematically I would say that my appreciation for mathematics has improved. I also think that these types of competitions are just as important for youth as soccer, basketball or hockey competitions. The best way to get better is to compete with the best people you can find and there were lots of great young mathematicians at this event.

If anyone else has attended a math competition I would love to hear your thoughts/advice. We will be back next year.

PS. A special thank you to all of the organizations who help to make these events possible.

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