- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 14, 2006

How many positive three-digit integers below 500 have at least two digits that are the same?

While the answer may be far from the tip of most people’s tongues, the nation’s 228 most talented middle-school mathematicians competed by answering such questions at Friday’s Lockheed Martin Mathcounts National Competition at the Hyatt Regency Crystal City in Arlington.

Daesun Yim, 14, the winner of the competition, says he is shocked that he managed to win. He is an eighth-grade student at Community Middle School in Plainsboro, N.J. He studied at least three hours a day for the past few months for the event. His hobbies include computer programming, chess and reading.

“I tried to hit the buzzer before the other person,” Daesun says. “I imagined other people being exactly as nervous as I was.”

As the national champion, Daesun receives the $8,000 Donald G. Weinert college scholarship, a trip to the U.S. Space Camp, a full scholarship worth $3,000 to the AwesomeMath Summer Program (a three-week camp) and a notebook computer.

The White House has awarded Mathcounts two citations as an outstanding private sector initiative. Every president over the past 20 years has recognized the event. Winners are expected to visit the White House today.

Andrew Ardito, 14, an eighth-grade student who is home-schooled by his mother, Eileen Ardito, of Coxsackie, N.Y., placed second in the individual competition. He won a $6,000 college scholarship and a full scholarship worth $3,000 to the AwesomeMath Summer Program.

Daesun and Andrew first became two of the 12 students to make it to the countdown round, a fast-paced, oral competition where the winner is crowned the national champion.

The members of the countdown round were ranked after a written competition, which determined the ability of individual students and teams. Virginia placed first as the national team champions, and Maryland placed seventh.

The four “Mathletes” on the Virginia team — Jimmy Clark, 13, an eighth-grade student at Longfellow Middle School in Falls Church; Divya Garg, 12, a seventh-grade student at Frost Middle School in Fairfax; Brian Hamrick, 14, an eighth-grade student at Frost Middle School; and Daniel Li, 14, an eighth-grade student at Rachel Carson Middle School in Herndon — each receive $2,000 college scholarships, a trip to the U.S. Space Camp and a notebook computer. Brian and Daniel also placed in the countdown round as part of the 12 top-scoring students.

“I told my students that since 2000, Virginia had placed second, first, fourth and fifth,” says Barbara Burnett, coach of the Virginia team and math teacher at Longfellow Middle School. “I said we hadn’t been third, yet. They said, ‘Can’t we be first or second?’ I said that would be good, too. I couldn’t be more excited.”

The goal of the event is to increase enthusiasm and excitement about mathematics among sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade students across the country, says Gary McDonald, chairman of the board of directors of the Mathcounts Foundation, based in Alexandria.

“It’s a very formidable age for our nation’s youth,” Mr. McDonald says. “Generally, if kids aren’t excited and interested in math at that age, it’s very difficult to get them excited and interested in it in high school and college.”

The contest, now in its 23rd year, started several months ago at the local level with chapter competitions, he says. The winner of the chapter competitions attends state competitions. Then, the top four winners form a state team and progress to the national competition.

About 500,000 students have been involved with Mathcounts this year, Mr. McDonald says. Mathcounts materials were sent to 40,000 middle schools in all 50 states, the District and U.S. territories. Although not all of the students advance in the contest, they still retain the knowledge that they learn, he says.

A volunteer committee, consisting of members from the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics in Reston, prepares the questions, which involve algebra, geometry, probability and precalculus, Mr. McDonald says.

Hopefully, the competition makes math attractive when students are considering career choices, he says. He is concerned that the United States is behind India and China in fields involving math, such as engineering.

“Mathematical scientists are absolutely a critical underpinning to good engineering and science,” Mr. McDonald says. “Engineering and science is what drives our economy. They are also critical in the national security. We need to ensure that are youth are pursuing those avenues of academic development so our future economic well-being will be well served.”

Understanding mathematics is within the grasp of everyone, says Philip Branch, a coordinator for the District for Mathcounts. He is distinguished professor emeritus in engineering at the University of the District of Columbia in Northwest.

“The program is intended to bring the excitement of math to every single student,” Mr. Branch says. “It’s not just the math wizards that we need in engineering and science.”

Although every finalist in the countdown round was male, girls are also excited about math, says Evangelie Zachos, 14, an eighth-grade student at Percy Julian Middle School in of Oak Park, Ill.

“It’s important that girls should be allowed to have the same opportunities as boys,” Evangelie says. “But if a girl doesn’t want to do math, don’t make her.”

The possibilities are endless if students have a strong math background, says Shan Cooper, vice president of diversity and equal employment at Lockheed Martin, headquartered in Bethesda. The company is a national sponsor of Mathcounts. Of its 135,000 employees, 65,000 are scientists and engineers.

Students should study early and often, taking as many math courses as they can, she says. The goal should be to apply their knowledge to the real world.

“The thought process to math becomes a benefit to any industry,” Mrs. Cooper says. “Don’t just tell me what you memorized. Apply what you learned, and bring imagination.”

By the way, the answer to the opening question is 112 integers.

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