Members of the Kenai Middle School math club add up to a formidable bunch.
A team formed from the group, sixth grader Hayden Hanson, seventh grader Maison Dunham, eighth grader Justin Anderson, and eighth grader Tucker Mueller, dominated and took first place at the State MathCounts Competition, on March 26 in Anchorage. Parent Volunteer David Thomas, who has been coaching the growing gang for four years, picked the final four this year. The previous year they took second, and in the spring of 2012 took first.
“Something that new is in the last two years I had to make team cuts,” Thomas said. “In first two years there were good students, and anyone who wanted to be on the team was on the team because I needed four bodies.”
Now he said, as a coach it is painful to turn people down. He looks at how cohesively the student works in a group, their overall skill level and how much practice time they put in.
“Hayden was working so hard his mother had to say ‘Hayden we don’t do math at the dinner table, we talked to each other at the dinner table’,” Thomas said.
Most of the pool he chooses from, a group of about 20 regulars that meet every Thursday after school until 5 p.m., are placed least one year ahead of their peers in math, Mueller has advanced three years beyond his actual grade level. Many have a long history of enjoying the subject.
“I have always just really loved math,” Hanson said.
He said, who is in eighth grade mad, usually picks up the classroom concepts pretty quickly. Math clubs provides a little more of a challenge. When he went to the competition this year, he was up against a group of peers that were “top notch.” He said it was a place that showed him his potential, including what areas he needed to focus on, and where he was doing well, and personal improvement is one of the values Thomas has been trying to instill in his students.
“Hard work and practice gets you father than just showing up an thinking you are smart,” Thomas said.
The after school event began seeing more members when Thomas began to incorporate more demanding questions into his lessons, using materials from MathCounts materials, a national non-profit that poses conceptual queries and aims at engaging middle-school students in mathematics. He also pairs the challenges with copious snacks and breaks to relax.
Abigail Moffet, a seventh grader in ninth grade math who attends the club with her sister Betsy, said she jumped at the chance to learn techniques she wouldn’t have otherwise touched on until high school.
“I want to be the best, and challenging yourself is one way to become that,” Moffet said.
Moffet’s approach is another important lesson. He said putting hard work into solving dynamic concepts is a skill that can be applied in any field and is more likely to facilitate innovation.
“She is a student who could kind of show up, punch the clock, and get As,” Thomas said. “It is good to struggle a little bit in something.”
Family trips and special events have kept Moffet from going to the MathCounts competition in years past, but next year she said she wants to go no matter what, even if her sister’s birthday falls on the date again.
“Sorry sis, I am out of here,” Moffet said with a laugh. She said Betsy would likely understand, as she too would probably like to compete in MathCounts someday.
Tyler Hippchen, a sixth grader in eighth grade math, would also like to join the team. He said the competitions add another dimension to how he views math. Usually the questions require the addition of two separate equations, and not all offered information is relevant.
“Some can be misleading,” Hippchen said. “It makes you think a lot harder too.”
Thomas said about twice a week he stresses the importance of reading comprehension to his math club members. Hippchen said without Thomas’s patient methods, and extra private tutoring support, the club wouldn’t be as successful and the students wouldn’t be improving as quickly.
Thomas said a big reason there are so many excelling students is because of the extra effort of the middle school staff, including encouragement from Principal Vaugh Dosko. It takes time to help place kids in more advanced classes and create schedules that work well for the student, he said. Because of the additional assistance, Thomas can devote his time to helping his students improve.
“I get to work with the smartest kids doing the most interesting stuff and leave the hard work to the teachers in the trenches,” Thomas said with a laugh.