Math students find strength in numbers

DOVER — The Delmar “Mathletics” started the eight-grade Math League Invitational competition at the Modern Maturity Center by counting on their multiples of two and three, a set of twins and a set of triplets.

The Koval triplets — 14-year-old David, Isabel and Daniel — and the Shoemaker twins Ashlyn and Halyn, 13, were the sum of Delmar’s team. In the final calculations, however, they were not equal to the region five team from H.B. du Pont Middle School in Hockessin.

The loss didn’t reduce David Koval’s love of math.

“It comes naturally,” he said.

Sister Isabel repeated his point, enlarging it by the friends and fun factor.

Natural elements like these are a positive sign.

The purpose of the 39-year old invitational, held by the Delaware Secondary School Mathematics League earlier this month, is to cultivate an interest in mathematics through team competition.

This year, the road to Dover began with more than 2,000 students competing at four regional meets in November. Those resulted in 26 teams, plus high-scoring individuals, distributed across grades seven through 12.

They were invited to converge for the state level invitation, spread out over three evenings and starting with the eighth-grade level competition on April 4. Seventh-graders had their turn on April 5 and ninth-12th grades on April 11.

On the first night of the invitational, the eighth-grade competitors quietened when announcer Tim Finley from Postlethwait Middle School in Camden stepped to the microphone.

“Read closely,” he advised.

That was welcome advice for those students who professed to love reading as well as math, but at least one competitor confided she preferred all her math to be represented by numerals.

“Word problems are a bit of a struggle for me,” the 14-year-old confided to an observer.

“Twenty-four inches is not the same as two feet, if they are asking for the answer to be given in feet,” Mr. Finley said.

Later, when he directed them to put down their pencils, they executed it with the precision of a drill team.

Mr. Finley’s skill at keeping the contest free from random errors was acclaimed by coordinator Denise Griffith.

“Most people would shudder at the thought of managing all those kids taking a math test together,” she said.

As the hour of reckoning drew near, some competitors read books to occupy their busy minds; many had snack bags, cans, bottles and travel cups, and a few were eagerly testing the limits of their calculators.

“If the question asks you ‘how many cows?’ write three cows. Don’t write pigs,” Mr. Finley continued. “Be careful! Don’t put in .02 cents if you mean 2 cents, because .02 cents means two-hundredths of a cent! Be very careful!”

And with a few more such cautionary comments, the processing began.

“How many degrees … hands of a clock … 9:30 …? You have three minutes.”

When the time had run out, the answers were passed forward and Isabel Koval moved back to the spot designated for alternates, while brother Daniel came in to take her place. To avoid confusion, teams had pre-arranged who would sit in for which questions. There would be seven questions altogether, some without calculators and some with.

“This is a calculator question,” Mr. Finley announced for question number 3. “Counting backwards by two starting at …”

Some of the students sat staring blankly, while others thumped their thumbs on their calculators. More than a few held their hands to their brows. Repeating the procedure, the papers were passed and collected.

“What’s the answer?” Mr. Finley asked. Several hands raised.

When selected, they confidently called out their answers.

They were at the midpoint of the competition.

The aroma of chicken wafted from the banquet hall at the other end of the building, where a candlelight dinner, invited guests and trophies awaited at a mutually exclusive event. In all, more than 1,100 people were registered for the three resulting banquets, held at the end of each night’s competition.

But no chickens were in the competition room , only a group of concurrently calculating kids with a common denominator: a fondness for fractions, finites, formulas, functions, fun, friends and food.

Editor’s note: Dee Marvin Emeigh is a freelance writer based in Milford.

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