• Mathew Crawford Mathew Crawford is an Education Engineer, textbook author, and CEO of MIST Academy, a school for gifted students in Birmingham, Alabama.
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    Tomorrow morning the Alabama MATHCOUNTS team competes against 55 other teams at the MATHCOUNTS National Championship.  The final round airs live streaming from the MATHCOUNTS website at 2:30 PM ET/1:30 PM CT.  I will post the team’s results here when I find out how they did.

    This is a great group of students, so tune in and root them on!

    There are a lot of reasons to be confident about Alabama’s state team this year.

    First is the competition they faced.  Just three years ago it took 27 points to make the state team.  There were something like 13 students in Alabama who scored at least that high this year.  This year’s state test was tougher than last year’s (I’ve got substantial data for many students for comparison at this point) and it took 38 points to make the team (just as it did last year).

    Great competition pushes us to higher peaks.

    But I don’t think that tells the story.  I believe these students will perform relatively better at the national competition where the problems are harder.  I could say this opinion is based partially on the fourth place student scoring 6 on the recent AIME, but I would have said that anyway.  Each of this year’s team members has a passion for mathematics and problem solving.

    During a recent practice session I noticed each of the students offering ideas to help with different problems.  They clearly have different strengths, and they are fully capable of teaching each other as they learn themselves.  These different strengths also raise their potential on a hard Team Round.

    I hope the Team Round is very hard this year.  With four strong team members, I believe a hard Team Round would favor this Alabama team.

    But here’s the reason I believe they will perform well: because they all seem to enjoy working hard on the problems.  They’re a very good team already, but they’ll be substantially better by May.

    Yesterday I went to help out with grading during the 2011 Alabama MATHCOUNTS competition in Huntsville.  This was probably the most competitive MATHCOUNTS event in Alabama in two decades.  Maybe ever.  The teams and competitors were simply amazing.  When the dust cleared, the breakdown was as follows:

    Top Teams:

    1st place — Pizitz Middle School
    2nd place — Baldwin Arts and Academic Magnet
    3rd place — Randolph School

    Top Individuals:

    1st place — Rickie Jang (Baldwin)
    2nd place — Charles Li (Pizitz)
    3rd place — Sunny Chennupati (Liberty Middle School)
    4th place — Sabrina Chen (Randolph)
    5th place — Linlin Pan (Pizitz)
    6th place — Peter Qiu (Pizitz)
    7th place — Ruchir Rastogi (Baldwin)
    8th place — Jaker Yang (Liberty)
    9th place — Ankit Bansal (Pizitz)
    10th place — Philip Wang (Pizitz)

    7 of these 10 students are MIST Academy students, and we are very proud of them!

    Special congratulations are in order to the four students who will travel to Washington D.C. in May to represent Alabama at the National MATHCOUNTS Competition: Rickie Jang, Charles Li, Sunny Chennupati, and Sabrina Chen.  They will be coached by Pizitz Middle School math team coach Vicki Cato.

    You have worked hard learning the essential problem solving skills and various fields of mathematics.  Together in class we’ve cleverly unraveled puzzles and built models to help focus our creative thoughts.  I haven’t pushed any of you very hard to prepare for MATHCOUNTS.  We’ve worked together and I let you decide how much of yourself you wanted to commit to any given activity.  On a few occasions I’ve opened the door to the school for practice sessions, but it was you who showed up and worked the problems.  The problems you motivated yourself to work at home are a testament to ability, passion, and your own drive.  So your achievements at Alabama MATHCOUNTS tomorrow are your own.

    I might tell you good luck.  But instead my hope is that you enjoy the problems.  May you learn something wonderful while you do your best to reach the top of a truly exceptional group of problem solvers.

    Today I had the pleasure of emceeing an amazing event.  The 2011 Birmingham Chapter MathCounts competitions took place at Simmons Middle School.  What I saw impressed me.  This is the fourth year I’ve hosted the competition and I feel quite certain there have not been this many amazing math students at Birmingham MathCounts during that time.  Or maybe in the past 20 years.

    Here is an anecdote which explains just part of what I saw: 6 of the top 13 students were not members of their school teams.  Knowing most of these students well I interpret this as the fact that so many students were capable of high scores that coaches had an extremely hard time picking team members, and there really may have been 30 or more Birmingham area students capable of making the Countdown Round on any given day.

    Another anecdote: A student who finished in the top ten at Alabama MathCounts last year finished outside the top six in Birmingham this year.

    And unlike last year when 12 of the top 13 students were 8th graders, this year 4 7th graders and 1 6th grader finished among the top 13 students.

    Team results were remarkably close with narrow margins determining most of the awards, but in the end, the rankings were as follows:

    1st place — Pizitz Middle School
    2nd place — Bumpus Middle School
    3rd place — The Altamont School
    4th place — Berry Middle School
    5th place — Simmons Middle School

    Both the Alabama School of Fine Arts and Our Lady of the Valley were close behind.  The top three teams now advance to the state competition which will be held March 19 in Huntsville.

    The top 12 individuals were as follows:

    1. *Lin Lin Pan (Pizitz Middle School, grade 8 )
    2. *Peter Qui (Pizitz Middle School, grade 8 )
    3. *Daniel Phillips (Simmons Middle School, grade 7)
    4. *Ankit Bansal (Pizitz Middle School, grade 8 )
    5. *Charles Li (Pizitz Middle School, grade 8 )
    6. *Philip Wang (Pizitz Middle School, grade 8 )
    7. Danny Johns (Simmons Middle School, grade 8 )
    8. *Yunchao Zhang (Pizitz Middle School, grade 6)
    9. *Lucy Wang (Simmons Middle School, grade 7)
    10. *Jason Liu (Pizitz Middle School, grade 8 )
    11. Josh Taggart (Berry Middle School, grade 8 )
    12. Andy Orphanos (Simmons Middle School, grade 7)

    *indicates a MIST Academy student

    Congratulations to Peter for winning the Countdown Round.

    Daniel Phillips, Ankit Bansal, and Danny Johns also advance to the state competitions for their excellent performances.


    But results are deceiving unless they are well understood, and they are understood well by only those people who spend a lot of time observing many different kinds of competitions.

    There is nothing standard about a math competition.  After all, goals in running a competition include providing an elevated challenge to students, and, as was the goal of the old Stanford contest, to identify students capable of novel insights.

    But this also means that results are particular to individual math competitions.

    A few weeks ago I blogged about how the middle school students at Pizitz ran over the competition in Florida at a tournament in November.  I knew something was amiss, and as I discussed the results with some of the Florida teachers, I came to find out that the playing field was anything but level.  The top students in Florida schools are a curricular year ahead of the top students in nearly all of the Alabama schools, including those at Pizitz.  So these results represent the outcome of 8th graders at a top school in Alabama competing against 7th graders from schools in Florida, 7th graders from Pizitz competing against 6th graders from Florida, and so on.

    Which programs are really superior?  It’s hard to say with an apples to orange comparison.  Though Florida does dominate at the high levels of the high school competitions at this point, which wasn’t the case a few years ago.  It seems that promoting their top students a year in math curriculum paid dividends by the end of high school.

    But these kinds of results are part of the reason I prefer competitions such as the AMC 10/12 and MathCounts, where grade levels are the basis of comparison.  (Really, there are many other reasons that the AMC and MathCounts are great events, but for the purpose of this post, we’ll stick to grade level comparisons.)

    Interestingly, Challenger Middle School in Huntsville started a Geometry program for its top 8th grade students a few years ago, with its top 7th graders taking Algebra I.  I think this is part of the reason why they have the largest sum of team scores at state MathCounts over the past three years.

    It is certainly true that advancement in math comes with a trade-off in depth of foundation.  Perhaps Challenger has the system right — they only let around 8-12 students advance so far ahead.  While this means that their students don’t perform as well at local competitions based on curricular level, it certainly seems to be giving them in advantage in preparation by grade level.

    And depth of foundation can be achieved over time as well.  Perhaps some of it has more to do with age and maturity than with what class students are taking at school.

    After the Rickard’s tournament, I took the time to bring the students down to Earth, letting them know that they shouldn’t think they are so far ahead — that they have work to do.  But mostly we just moved on to the next topic and explored some new and interesting math concepts.

    The biggest change is that Vestavia will hold a sixth grade division for the first time.  I’m glad that sixth grade math team events have popped up around the state over the past decade or so.  This will be a good thing for local math teams…unless Vestavia starts running out of class space to hold students as happened a number of years ago.

    Another change is that there will be group ciphering comprehensive.  I’m not quite as wild about this change.  I’m not sure if it mirrors Mu Alpha Theta, but I’m not a big fan of the Mu Alpha Theta competition style, which has basically evolved to conform to the organization of Florida schools.  One student makes a bigger difference in team scoring during group ciphering. Statistically, this gives huge schools an even larger advantage as outlier students come along more frequently.  Though how successful the event is depends largely on how it’s run and how good the problems are.

    Another change is that all 6th grade, PreAlgebra, and Algebra students will cipher, and take both mental math and speed math tests.

    I’m glad that the mental math and speed math is being held just to the younger grades.  I’ve never seen any of the Mu Alpha Theta style mental math or speed math tests, but when I heard about them, my thought was, “This [Mu Alpha Theta] isn’t all speed math already?”  I’m not sure what’s tested.  It’s possible to create interesting tests, so I’ll withhold judgment until I see it all.  If it encourages students to develop a mental picture of some mathematical processes and problem solving concepts, then it might be a good thing.  At its best, that’s what the Countdown Round does at MATHCOUNTS, though I can’t say that I’m a huge fan of the way that round gets used during competition.

    Hopefully it will all be fun for the younger students.  If new events get more kids to have fun with math, then it’s a win, so long as it doesn’t overshadow the need to learn math more deeply.

    Yesterday I held the first MATHCOUNTS and ARML practices of the year here at MIST Academy.

    In the morning, 11 students showed up to practice at the chapter and state levels of MATHCOUNTS.  The turnout wasn’t as high as last year’s practices because I did not advertise the practices as directly to the students or send out an email reminder.  I was honestly afraid that I would have more than I could handle.  Last year’s first practice included 24 students, which required us to open a second classroom at the school.  We started earlier this year, with the most dedicated students.  They really impressed me.  There were a lot of scores in the 30′s on state level tests, and some in the high 20′s as well.  It’s amazing to think that two and a half years ago only one student in the state broke a score of 30.  We may soon have more than a dozen who can do that consistently just here at MIST Academy — and I know there are several of the brightest middle school students in the state that we don’t work with who can also do that.

    The afternoon ARML session was also relatively small, though from what I heard from the students, there will be more students attending in the future.  The 11 students who did show up included four of the middle school students who came to  MATHCOUNTS practice — giving up six hours on a Saturday to work hard math problems.

    The ARML scores were relatively good.  There was one 5, and several 2′s, 3′s, and 4′s (out of 8 tough problems).  Not bad considering that only one senior and two juniors showed up.  My hope is that the number of participating students grows to around 20 for each practice, and that we have at least 30 who want to make the trip this year.  I think we’ll exceed that number.

    The students worked two team tests shorthanded, getting 6 problems on the first and 4 on the second (more recent) test.  Not bad considering that less than half of the students participating are likely to be on Team A.  A sixth grader in attendance correctly answered problem 8 (the last problem) during the Individual problems practice.  Wow!

    No students outside of MIST Academy showed up, which disappoints me a little.  I’ve tried to build bridges to students outside of the program, but it’s a slow process.  Last year seven of the twenty students who traveled with us had not taken any MIST Academy classes, and my hope is that we’ll draw more of those students again over time.  One of the ASFA teachers is pushing ARML on his students, so maybe we’ll get a few more talented freshmen on the team.

    I’m still predicting a 40 point increase in the team’s score this year.  The team was so young last year.  If the current students continue to improve the way they have been, it wouldn’t surprise me to see back-to-back 40 point improvements.

    I sometimes feel like I should spend more time preparing the ARML team, though I do feel that the time I spend building my classes is generally more valuable to more students, and may do more to help the MATHCOUNTS and ARML teams in the long run.  I don’t just focus on contest math with the curriculum.  I try to achieve a balance of problem solving, understanding, and proof writing.

    I’ll try to schedule more of these practices throughout the year, but it’s tough to have one day off out of twenty.

    This is the third year I’ve started teaching at the start of the school year, and each year I see a tremendous amount of progress in building up the math culture here in Alabama.  I’m amazed by these kids.  For the third year I’ve thought that the 8th grade students were a stronger group overall.  In fact, I’m almost stunned by this year’s 8th graders statewide.  There is so much talent and it’s better developed.  Three years ago there were just two or three 8th graders working at a very high level.  Now it may be 15-20.  Now I’m looking down at the 6th grade group and wondering if it might be the best group I’ve had in class to this point.

    Predictions for this school year:

    Alabama will have an even greater share of the top scores on the AMC 8. Potentially much greater.

    Alabama will again climb in the results at National MathCounts (43rd in 2008, 33rd in 2009, 19th in 2010).  This group has the potential for a very high finish — they have the chance to outscore some of the big states.

    Alabama will have more AIME qualifiers — particularly through the AMC 10, which is the harder route for qualification.  It won’t surprise me if that last number doubles.

    Alabama will have more olympiad qualifiers — for both olympiads.  Perhaps we’ll see the first award winner from Alabama in over a decade.

    Alabama ARML will pass several dozen teams.  There are at least three seniors I’d like to add to the team, and if they all join, there is the potential for a top 20 finish.  Two or three years from now, that could be a normal event.

    I think these improvements go hand-in-hand with kids enjoying what they’re doing.  I have more and more students in class who seem absolutely thrilled to be working on higher level material.  Yesterday one of my sophomores told me that her 6th grade brother was depressed after his two week MIST Academy summer program ended.  Any kids who enjoys working that much on challenging material is going to move forward more quickly with his education.  This is the primary reason why the middle and high school math communities are growing so strong this quickly.

    What these kids are doing is very special.  I hope they gain some positive attention from the broader education community.  They are investing a lot of time now, but that time will make their math, science, and technology classes easier to handle down the road.

    These kids are a lot of fun to be around.  I have a good job.  Long hours, but very good.

    As we did last year, MIST Academy will host MathCounts practices on select Saturday mornings.  Additionally, we plan to begin hosting events for ARML students.  So far I have added an ARML practice and a lesson on graph theory to the schedule, which can be found here and through our homepage.

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