Math competition adds in some fun

Morrisville teen is runner-up in contest patterned after game show

schandler@newsobserver.comFebruary 13, 2012 

The idea of a math competition tends to conjure up a sedate, quiet affair, not particularly spectator-friendly. Pencils scratching against paper, timers ticking, near-silence until it's all over and the scores are tallied. If, that is, the test takers are even in the same room at the same time and not taking the tests at their respective homes or schools.

But who says math has to be quiet? Why can't it be a little fun now and then?

That's the idea behind the American Mathematical Society's "Who Wants to be a Mathematician" competition, held last month in Boston.

It didn't offer exactly the slick set or suspenseful music of the TV show on which the name is based, but "Who Wants to Be a Mathematician" did offer a little dose of fun to contestants, including Allen Yang, a Cary Academy senior who lives in Morrisville.

The 10 contestants from schools across the country solved multiple-choice problems projected on a giant screen as a timer counted down. There was a host (although it wasn't Regis Philbin or Meredith Vieira), and the event was made public via a live webcast. And, of course, as in any game show, there were fabulous prizes - in this case, cash, along with swag like math books and graphing calculators.

"It was my first time participating in, like, a game show," said Allen, who has taken part in dozens of math and other competitions. "So that was exciting because usually math competitions are just problems that you solve on a piece of paper, but this was interactive with other people."

In the end, Allen emerged as one of three runners-up, winning $3,000 for himself and $3,000 for Cary Academy's math department. The runner-up spot - effectively second place - usually goes to just one contestant, but this year it was split three ways, all because of a little typo.

The last problem shown on the screen during a semifinal round asked how many solutions exist to "cos(cos theta) = theta," when it should have said "cos(cos theta) = cos theta," the contest admits on its website.

It didn't take long for Allen and another contestant whose answer was counted as wrong (when, in fact, it was correct for the problem displayed) to figure out the mistake and bring it to the judges' attention, but by then the final round had already taken place - without Allen.

So he didn't get a chance to compete for the top prize, but he doesn't harbor hard feelings. The judges, after doing their own research, acknowledged the mistake and adjusted the prizes to compensate for their error.

"I was actually really impressed with how they dealt with that," Allen said.

Math competitions take up a lot of Allen's time, but numbers aren't his only interest. He indulges in competitive Pokemon when he can, and he plays French horn and piano.

"It's a break from math," he said of music. "While math is really logical, I find music to be really emotional on the other side, so they complement each other well."

Asked after the "Who Wants to be a Mathematician" contest whether he indeed wants to be a mathematician, Allen confessed that that's one question he can't definitively answer.

"Math is one of my biggest options, but I haven't completely decided on it yet," he said. "I'm definitely going to be doing something that is related to engineering."

And that, for now, is his final answer.

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