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Putting Mathletes to the Test

It takes mental agility to compete at MathCounts

“Everyone has the same capabilities. Girls just weren’t taught to do math as much. But we can do anything,” says the individual competition winner Amelia Talbot, from Cardinal Hickey Academy in Calvert County. Her teacher and coach, Susan Scott says she “had a sense early on that Amelia would do very well in the competition.”

Can you answer these questions?

    The sum of the digits of 2017 is 10. What is the next year this will occur?
    The number 2017 is prime. What was the most recent year before 2017 that was also a prime number?
    If the NCAA 64-team tournament bracket consists of four regions, and the winner of each region will be part of the Final Four or semifinals of the tournament, how many possible Final Four team combinations are there?

Did you answer in under 10 minutes? If so, you may have the chops to compete in SMECO’s annual MathCounts competiton.
    Student mathletes in Southern Maryland combine their love of puzzles and math in an annual contest of skills and quick thinking. The competition is tough.
    More than 230 students from 24 schools put those skills to the test this month.
    The four-man team from Northern Middle School in Owings was eager to compete, glad to sacrifice three hours on a Saturday morning to test their mettle.
    Nima Talebi, William Rathgeb, Leo Johnson and Robert Martin all profess to love math and the puzzles they face in the MathCounts competition. Math can be both fun and competitive, according to the four eighth-graders who took second place under the direction of teacher Carole Butler.
    “It’s better than a regular math class. We are always learning something different,” Rathgeb told me.
    Their banter is fast as they toss jokes and good-hearted teasing like baseballs. The team thrives on challenging one another.
    “I’m honored to be a part of this team,” Talebi says. “Math is my best subject, and I can see myself having a career that involves math.”
    Martin professes to love sports maybe a bit more than math, but he recognizes that he needs “a fallback plan.” He also won first place in a SMECO elementary level competition when he was in fifth grade.

Calvert County’s Northern Middle School team placed second. From left, team members Nima Talebi, William Rathgeb, Leo Johnson, Robert Martin and head coach Carole Butler.

    Teacher Butler recruits honors math students to try out for the club. When she tests the 75 to 100 kids who apply, she says, “some are crushed that they don’t know how to solve the problems. But it’s a different kind of brain work; you have to be good at puzzles and word problems.”
    You have to be good at problem-solving and a special type of mental acrobatics, the boys say. “They will throw in extra numbers in a problem,” Martin reports. “It’s not just basic math.”
    “You have to figure out what kind of math you need to do to solve each problem,” Johnson says.
    “You have to pay attention,” adds Talebi. “There are tricks we use when studying for the competition. It is a lot of memory and practice. And you have to be fast, like seriously fast.”
    The team practiced hundreds of problems twice a week in preparation.

Top Winner: A Girl
    In the individual competition, based on combined scores in the sprint and target rounds, Amelia Talbot from Cardinal Hickey Academy in Calvert County placed first.
    Talbot, an eighth-grader, says she didn’t expect to win. “I was kind of shocked,” she says.
    Her teacher was not.
    “I had a sense early on that Amelia would do very well in the competition,” says coach Susan Scott, who works the puzzles into her students’ curriculum.
    Talbot says she finds math fun and satisfying. “Math and numbers are so straightforward. There is no room for interpretation. Either it’s right or it’s not.”
    Now she is looking forward to winning the state contest and moving on to the national rounds. “I really, really want to go to Florida in May,” she says.
    Math for Talbot, much like for the boys just down the road at Northern Middle, comes easily. “You just have to have the right mindset — it’s all in how your mind works. You look at something logically, and then it all clicks. And persistence, you have to keep trying until you get it.”
    Are girls better at math?
    Talbot, who also plays basketball, has a ready answer. “I believe everyone has the same capabilities. Girls just weren’t taught to do math as much. But we can do anything.”
    Winners of the Southern Maryland Chapter competition compete in a statewide contest at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore on March 18.
    Answers: 2026; 2011; 65,536 Final Four team combinations.