The movie Mean Girls took some liberties with its Mathletes scene, but it mostly got the essentials of math competitions right. In a typical competition, a handful of students from each school face off to solve some hard problems.
I started competing in math competitions in middle school. To improve my scores, I started studying advanced mathematics on my own, and I’ve stayed on that trajectory for 20 years now through high school, university, and career. Given how influential math contests were for me personally, I wish that they were available to more students than the limited few who make their school’s cut.
While I was teaching at IMSA, my colleague Vince Matsko started hosting the Math Kangaroo contest there. The Math Kangaroo is an international contest for elementary through high school students, and it is completely open to any individual who wants to take it. I was heartened to see that the students who registered were not just the usual suspects from their school’s math teams, but also included students who enjoyed math but couldn’t put up elite scores on tryouts. The Kangaroo contest is unique in its focus on participation and enjoyment of mathematics over results.
I signed my older son up for his first Kangaroo contest last year as a 3rd grader. He had a great time and still wears the competition T-shirt with pride. Not only is he looking forward to this year’s competition, but my younger son is eager to join him (even though he’s not quite old enough yet).
The results emailed to me after the competition included my son’s score as well as his place and percentile in both the state and the nation. I found it odd that his place in the nation was the same as his place in the state. Then I noticed he was only a third of a percentile higher in the state than in the nation. Knowing how percentiles are computed, I figured that only one 3rd grader outside the state of California even took the test.
The Math Kangaroo contest is too fun and valuable an experience for such low enrollment. The only requirement is that the student likes math. If you know a young person who qualifies, please go to the Math Kangaroo website and register by December 31st. And if you’re in the San Diego area, my son and I will see you there!