Missoula students score big at MathCounts competition

By Martin Kidston/Missoula Current

If you slice a cone in half, what’s the proportion of volume in the lower half compared to its entirety? How many zeroes are at the end of 15 factorial?

A team of students at Missoula International School whizzed through such questions and more last week at the Western Montana Chapter of the MathCounts Competition, taking top honors for the second year in a row.

For head coach and former math teacher Michael Curtis, it wasn’t so much winning that mattered, but rather seeing all 20 students on the team inspired by mathematics.

“In general, what it engenders is a sharper appreciation for math,” said Curtis. “The problems we do often involve really clever or elegant methods of solving them. The kids learn to appreciate some of the elegance of what can be done in math.”

With 14 area schools and 140 students competing, seven students from MIS placed overall in the top 25 percent, earning the right to compete in the state competition next month at Montana Tech in Butte.

One team from MIS placed first for the second year in a row while two students – Grace Gibson-Snyder and Georgia Walker-Keleher – won first and second place respectively as the competition’s top-scoring individuals.

“We practice every Friday afternoon right after school for about an hour and a half,” said Curtis. “For the first half hour, we have them do problems individually. The next half, we group the kids into teams of three or four, and they do problems together. It replicates one of the sections in the MathCounts Competition.”

MathCounts, part of a national nonprofit organization, provides engaging math programs to middle school students in an effort to build confidence and improve their attitude toward math and problem solving. Winners have been recognized in White House ceremonies by U.S. presidents dating back to Ronald Reagan.

The annual Montana competition includes several rounds, including a speed round and a team round. Calculators are permitted to solve some problems, but not all.

“We knew it would be tough to compete against so many schools,” said Jen Gebo, a math and science teacher at MIS. “But it was because of the dedication of the entire team – 20 young mathematicians who spent Friday afternoons training every week – that we were able to achieve this.”

Curtis once served as a math teacher but grew discouraged by his students’ lack of interest in the subject. But his interest in teaching has returned, thanks in part to the curiosity of the MathCounts team.

For middle school students, the program comes at a crucial stage in their development, either solidifying their love for math or helping them overcome their fear of the subject.

“The kids we have this year are eager and enthusiastic,” said Curtis. “Our philosophy here is that it’s an extracurricular activity. We try not to make it feel like it’s another class. The theme is to have fun while we’re exploring some of the more beautiful aspects of mathematics.”

Curtis also applauded the success of other schools, including Sussex and Washington middle schools.

“They’re always strong every year, and they set the bar very high for everyone,” he said.

Contact reporter Martin Kidston at info@missoulacurrent.com