Editor’s note: In a recent edition of Greetings we highlighted the efforts of the Wayland Math team. As of December 10, the team is ranked in the top 10 of schools participating in the Wisconsin Mathematic League. Four Wayland students, Kurt Li `20, Son Nguyen `21, Thanh Phan `22, and Matthew Wagner `20, are ranked among top competitors in the state as well. Wayland provides a wide variety of competitive student teams from athletics to forensics to Solos and Ensembles (music). These team activities are all very visible compared to the quiet concentration during a math competition.While incredibly meaningful for the participants, math competitions don’t lend themselves to spectator participation. We asked one of Wayland’s leading math team members to share his insights about this intense and often overlooked activity.
Joining other Wayland students for math competitions has been a great experience for me. Although we don’t have an official roster, there is frequent collaboration when it comes to answering each other’s questions and working together on group problems. Participation in math competitions are voluntary, and I’m always surprised by the turnout we get.
Last year’s Trailways Conference Math Competition against several local schools proved very memorable. Participants took tests based on the math class they were taking, so the competition was just as prepared as we were. Wayland had 24 students, six at each of four levels: Algebra 1, Geometry, Advanced Algebra, and Advanced Math. As part of the Advanced Math group, the tests included concepts from Algebra 1 through Precalculus.
First was an individual test, which we each had 45 minutes to take. Strategy is key. Time is limited at every competition, so it is important to stayfocused and not linger on any single problem. If the way to find the answer isn’t obvious, skip the problem for later. It’s difficult to not become overwhelmed, the stakes are high and gettingevery question right with so little time seemslike an insurmountable challenge. While we are instructed in math classes to read each problem slowly and consider it carefully to ensure the best chance of answering it correctly, at competitions, balancing speed and accuracy is crucial. Often problems appear unfamiliar and confusing. The key is to reduce them from paragraphs to numbers and symbols, making the math behind the problem the focus, and quickly eliminating the irrelevant details. Of the 15 questions on the individual test at the Trailways Conference competition, I was unable to solve one and two I wasn’t sure about. I assumed my chances of placing were nonexistent and I tried to ignoremy poor odds during the test to focus on getting as much correct as I could before time ran out.
Strategy for the team test is entirely different. The first step is to divide the problems among everyone ensuring each person is working on a problem they understand. Often students will “trade” problems they can’t solve. The most difficult part of team tests comes when two students disagree. It becomes easy to let pride take over and to continue arguing for a particular solution without considering the other student’s explanation. This not only wastes valuable time but may also involve other group members taking focus from other problems. It is crucial to question the opinions of others and be assertive if they make a mistake, but also to readily admit your own mistakes and move on. We completed every question at the Trailways conference competition and felt confident about most of our answers. We hoped to finish in as one of the top three teams.
Many Wayland students placed highly when results were announced at the ceremony. Advanced Math was the final category, and the feeling of dread within me grew as the top ten performers were revealed. They were announced backwards, from tenth to first place. Each name I heard was another sign that I had not made it. Finally, the announcer called “First place: Matthew Wagner, Wayland Academy.” My heart skipped a beat as I received my medal. What a great moment! It felt good to be rewarded for persevering when things looked bad. I made mistakes, but I hadn’t counted on other competitors making the same errors. Despite our confidence, our Advanced Math team didn’t place. We made a small mistake that cost us dearly, while several other teams managed to get perfect or near-perfect scores. Even so, we celebrated our successes and resolved to improve do even better for the future.