The lights dimmed and music blared. The crowd cheered as spotlights and an announcer introduced the teams. An ESPN crew was on the scene. This wasn't an NBA playoff game; it was the 2011 Raytheon MATHCOUNTS National Competition, held in Washington, D.C., on Friday—where the country's brightest math-minded middle schoolers competed to win an $8,000 scholarship and a trip to space camp.
Its atmosphere was as tense as any sporting event. Individual finalists were narrowed down from a pool of 224 "Mathletes"—four from each state, Washington, D.C., and several U.S. territories—via a grueling, three-hour written exam. The top 12 scorers, whose identities were announced onstage just moments before, made it to what is known as the "countdown round," where they were pitted head to head. The first mathlete to get three questions correct advanced; the other left the stage to sit with his team.
More than 100,000 students nationally compete in a MATHCOUNTS program at school. Students have to place well in a district and state competition before advancing to the national finals.
Of those students, there was a clear favorite: Shyam Narayanan, an 8th grader from Kansas who came in second place last year, and the competition's No. 1 seed after acing the written exam. The day before the competition, he took the AP Calculus AB test, usually reserved for high school seniors. He said it was hard, but that he "probably got a five."
Last year, Narayanan got to meet President Obama after finishing as the runner up in the competition. For his first question to the most important man in the free world, he wanted to know the location of the antipodal points of the Oval Office—that is, the two points that are furthest apart. Stumped, the president allowed Narayanan and other MATHCOUNTS finalists to calculate the points.
This year, Narayanan, who said he gets nervous on stage, lost in the semifinals. Scott Wu, an 8th grader from Louisiana competing in his second MATHCOUNTS finals, won the competition when he was able to calculate the answer to this question: "It takes 180 digits to write down all of the two-digit positive integers. How many of these digits are odd?" in just seconds, faster than Yang Liu, from Missouri.
[Scott Wu, an eighth grader from Baton Rouge, La., is crowned Raytheon MATHCOUNTS National Champion in Washington, D.C., by U.S. Deputy Secretary of Education Tony Miller and MATHCOUNTS official Pam Wickham.]
If you think that the question stumped Liu, you're probably wrong. Incorrect answers were occasionally given, but that's because it's a race. Wu was simply able to calculate the answer (95) first. "Some of the questions take some time to figure out, but it's all about speed," Wu said after the competition. "I was pretty nervous. The questions come so fast, and everyone is so fast."
Wu, who attends Glasgow Middle School in Louisiana and wants to be a computer programmer, might not even be the best mathematician in his family. His brother, Neal, won the competition in 2005 and was the top seed in 2006. Wu completed calculus last year and isn't taking a math class this year because there isn't one tough enough for him at his school. Instead, he takes AP chemistry.
Students like Wu, Narayanan, and Liu are bright spots in a country where science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) achievement has fallen behind internationally.
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Lou DiGioia, executive director of MATHCOUNTS, says the competition helps kids get excited about math.
"There's a cultural attitude toward scholastic achievement in this country that, unfortunately, doesn't value it as highly as athletic achievement. There are very few opportunities that we have to recognize and appreciate students who achieve in math," he says. "A high profile event like this that gets students excited about math, the same way that they'd get excited about winning a state championship in baseball. When the kids are here, they are treated like our Olympic athletes."
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The competition was broadcast on ESPN3, ESPN's online branch. DiGioia hopes someday MATHCOUNTS will be as high profile as the Scripps National Spelling Bee, but understands why some people aren't able to get into his competition as easily.
"I think it's easier for someone who's never done a spelling bee before to follow along. Students can take all day to spell the words—there's natural tension there. In MATHCOUNTS, the kids are so fast that even math experts have a tough time following along," he says. "Everybody can spell, but you have to have a very sophisticated level of math knowledge to get to this point."
And some of these MATHCOUNTS finalists can spell better than others. Many, like Dakota Jones from Nevada, compete in both MATHCOUNTS and the Scripps National Spelling Bee. For him, the infinite number of possible MATHCOUNTS makes it more nerve wracking than the spelling bee.
"In the spelling bee, they have to draw from a dictionary of 475,000 entries," he says. "They can't just make anything up."