Community college math competition challenges high school students

Attention, Anne Arundel County schools math whizzes: Meet Sammy the owl.

Sammy is a fictitious character that runs a pole measuring business. His wings are injured, so he can't fly to the top of the pole, which has a rope tied to the top. The rope is 3 feet longer than the pole, and when the rope is pulled taut, Sammy is 5 feet from the base of the pole.

How tall in feet is the pole?

That query is among the brain-teasing word problems on tests county students tackle in Anne Arundel Community College's annual High School Mathematics Competition. The five-part competition runs through much of the school year and gives students with a passion for all things numbers an opportunity to test their knowledge against like-minded math enthusiasts.

Such students would likely know that the answer to the aforementioned math problem is 2 2/3 feet, but they might not know that the question shows up on college competitions, such as the 2002 Rice University Mathematics Tournament and the Stanford University Mathematical Organization's 2002 Math Tournament.

Community college officials say they cull from many sources for the competition, which includes two components — an individual test and a team test. In the individual test, students must answer six questions within 30 minutes without a calculator. In the team exam, teams of up to five students answer six questions and can use calculators.

"The main reason is to give students who are excited about mathematics and interested in mathematics an opportunity to compete and be challenged," said Eveline Robbins, AACC associate professor of mathematics. The school offers five competitions each year; usually about 15 schools compete.

Schools can have a maximum of 20 students per competition, Robbins said. She said winners earn such prizes as certificates and decals, while students posting perfect scores are awarded apples — the fruit, not the computer.

The college also awards prizes for schools that earn the three highest tallies. "We take [each] school's top three individual scores and divide that by three, and then we take the school's top team score and we add those two together, and that gives us the total score for that school," Robbins said.

The competition gives county schools, both public and private, bragging rights for math. Over the past 10 years, schools that have fared the best include Severn School, Annapolis High School and Severna Park High School. But over the past two years, the most dominant school is Hanover-based Chesapeake Science Point, a county magnet school that's been in existence for less than 10 years.

For the 2011-2012 school year, Chesapeake Science Point placed first, with Severn School second and Annapolis High third. Last year, Chesapeake Science Point took first, followed by Severna Park and Archbishop Spalding High School.

Anne Arundel Community College held the third part of this year's competition Dec. 7, featuring 119 students, and Chesapeake Science Point continued its yearlong dominance. The school took first place, followed by Severn in second and Severna Park in third. The next part of the competition will be held Feb. 1.

In addition to Chesapeake Science Point's overall dominance, two of its students — Lukash Onyshkevych and Anthony Krieger — each earned a perfect score on the individual portion.

The competition is among many Onyshkevych competes in statewide and nationally since discovering he had a knack for math after transferring to Chesapeake Science Point from the Fairhaven School in Upper Marlboro. He has since joined Chesapeake's math team.

"We used to have a math teacher here who would give us a 'math question of the day' every morning," Onyshkevych said. "The first time I [took part] in the question of the day, I was the only one who knew the answer. It was not like a regular math question but more like a question for critical thinking."

It was then, Onyshkevych said, that he discovered a knack for a discipline that many other students struggled with or frowned upon. He's been able to display his talents in the community college competition.

"We have two people at the college who search high and low, old competitions on the Internet, various places, for the questions," Robbins said. "They're not the straightforward questions you would see in high school, although they are based on topics they should have covered in high school. We try to give them questions that students [who have had classes] pretty much through precalculus ought to be able to do."

Some of the competition's word problems can be quite colorful and outlandish, such as a condensed version of a question that is also found in the brain teaser book "Amusements in Mathematics," by Henry Ernest Dudeney:

"Alfred the cat is surrounded in a circle by 13 mice — the first 12 are gray, and the last one is white. Alfred plans to eat one mouse, then count in a clockwise direction and eat every 13th mouse. After each meal, the counting resumes with the next remaining mouse in the clockwise direction. But Alfred must eat the white mouse last. Which mouse should he eat first?"

Answer: Alfred should eat the fifth mouse first — though in the "Amusements in Mathematics" book, the cat falls asleep trying to figure it out, and all the mice escape.

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