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Middle school competitors come to play — and do math

Marc Ake, 12, a seventh-grader and math club

Marc Ake, 12, a seventh-grader and math club member at Longwood Junior High School in Middle Island, practices Thursday for the upcoming Long Island MoMathlon competition at Brookhaven Laboratory. Credit: Randee Daddona

Call them the math kids.

Seventh grader Joseph Caliendo loves math so much that when he's bowling, he figures out the mathematical possibilities of the shot ahead.

Eighth grader Rishi Ghatta loves math so much that in his spare time, he is often learning more about math.

And when seventh grader Marc Ake is playing his violin, he likes to ponder the math behind quarter and sixteenth notes.

These boys all belong to the math club at Longwood Junior High School in Middle Island, which is among 21 middle school teams that have been practicing for the sixth annual Long Island MoMathlon Tournament on Friday.

The top two teams will compete in a "Tournament of Champions" on April 29 at the National Museum of Mathematics in Manhattan.

The Longwood students have been spending hours after school practicing things like finding the area of a triangle and working out problems with polynomials — whatever they are. On the team, they look at math as a kind of sport, especially when they have to put their heads together during the team portion of the competition.

Math is hardly considered the coolest endeavor among young people, noted Longwood Principal Adam DeWitt. The practice of it can be somewhat isolating for a middle schooler, especially when a student is way beyond what's being taught in the classroom, he said.

But the math club and the big tournament provide an outlet for these young people where they can come together, form friendships and enjoy the camaraderie of their shared interests, said Longwood math teacher Meghan Yates.

During a recent team practice in the school library, Yates and fellow coach Martine Baum laid out a brainteaser. They gave the team the coordinates of the three vertexes of a triangle, then asked them to figure out the area of the shape.

The kids busily started working with the markers and shiny white boards before them, drawing triangles and jotting down numbers. (The math club has girls on it, but this year's five-member competition team is all boys.)

"I got 44," called out Caliendo, and other team members huddled by his side to see his calculations. Some quick comparisons and some additional work found the answer to be 28.

"Look at this, they love it," said Yates, watching the brainstorming session. "They thrive on analyzing anything."

Cindy Lawrence is the driving force behind the MoMathlon Tournament. She is the executive director and CEO of the National Museum of Mathematics in Manhattan. But a decade ago, she was a Port Jefferson Station mother who had an epiphany about math tournaments on Long Island.

It started when her youngest child, Hannah, came home from elementary school all excited about an upcoming interschool math tournament. She said she was nervous because so many kids wanted to compete and she wasn't sure she would make it.

Not long after that, her oldest son, David, lamented that his school was having trouble fielding a team to compete in a high school math tournament, so much so that teachers were offering extra credit for kids to sign up.

The two stories just didn't add up — mathematically speaking, Lawrence recalled.

She came to learn that Suffolk County had no big math tournament for middle schoolers at the time. Then she found out from another mother that the same was true for Nassau County. The two determined that many kids had lost interest in math in middle school.

"We both decided to organize math tournaments in both counties," she said. "We wanted to keep kids excited about math through middle school."

They each started up math tournaments. When Lawrence got involved with the museum in 2008, she translated that desire into a blockbuster contest, which includes middle schoolers from throughout New York City and Long Island, she said. 

Lawrence said the tournament — which often includes sudden death matches, tiebreaking rounds and a part where kids work with students from other schools — emphasizes that math is more than just arithmetic with numbers.

"There's creativity and intuition, and a sense of what would happen if," she said. "If you figure it out, there's a sense of elation."

Caliendo, 12, said he gets that. He hears kids saying that they won't need a lot of math in their life. But he thinks that's only partly right.

What if a person has three places to go in their car — the store, the gas station and the gym. Figuring out the fastest route to accomplish all three takes a sense of math.

And when Caliendo's mother needed to know the price of something marked down 75% at Target, she called her son for the quick answer, he said.

"You may not need to know how to factor quadratic equations," said the boy who hopes to become a district attorney. "But you're going to need to think like that in the real world."

Sample MoMathlon questions

1) What is the maximum number of Fridays that can exist in July?

2) A palindrome is a number whose digits can be read the same backward as forward, like 282 or 9119. The mirror image of a number is the number formed by reversing the digits. The number 1974 is added to its mirror image. Then that sum is added to its mirror image. This process continues, adding sums to their mirror images, until the sum is a palindrome. When the process stops, what is the palindrome?

3) In how many ways can 47 be written as the sum of two primes?

Answers:

1) The correct answer is 5. The maximum is when the first day of the month is a Friday. Then the following days are also Fridays: 8th, 15th, 22nd, and 29th. So that's 5 Fridays.

2) The correct answer is 26862, which can be found by plain old arithmetic:

1974 + 4791 = 6765

6765 + 5676 = 12,441

12,441 + 14,421 = 26,862

3) The correct answer is 0 (zero). For 47 to be written as the sum of two integers, one must be odd and the other must be even. There is only one even prime, namely 2, so one of the numbers must be 2, making the other 45. However, 45 is not prime, so there are no ways to write 47 as the sum of two primes.

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