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    Totally psyched about math

    An annual gathering of young mathematicians is a show of nerves, smarts, team effort and fierce competition.

    By KATHERINE GAZELLA
    © St. Petersburg Times,
    published December 9, 2001


    PALM HARBOR -- Stephen Adams has heard about people who don't take tests for fun, who don't care about the limit of a sequence as n approaches infinity, who don't even like math. He is gleefully dismissive of their kind.

    "They're fools," said Adams, a senior at Palm Harbor University High School and a member of the calculus squad on the school's Mu Alpha Theta math team.

    At least during the competitive season, Adams and his classmates exist happily within the math subculture. They travel throughout the state, armed with their weapon of choice, usually a Texas Instruments 89 model graphing calculator.

    The season really gets going next month, when teams will travel to competitions every other Saturday through the end of March. The unofficial kickoff was Friday, when 26 teams competed at Palm Harbor University High for bragging rights in Pinellas County.

    The calculus team at Palm Harbor went into the competition as reigning champs; their school won the algebra 2, precalculus and calculus categories here last year. The day before this year's event, they liked their chances.

    They didn't expect much of a challenge from other schools. Quickly, their talk turned to a Hillsborough County rival.

    "Berkeley," several students groaned, a mixture of reverence and scorn for Tampa's Berkeley Prep team.

    But they wouldn't have to deal with Berkeley on Friday. The Palm Harbor squad was the home team, and the one to beat. They had a team meeting Thursday and, as a tune-up, the calculus squad took a practice test in a second-floor classroom.

    That isn't the only way they get ready for the big day.

    "We break 10 raw eggs. Rev up the calculator batteries," joked Moses Kim, 17, a member of the calculus team.

    Friday, math teams took over Palm Harbor's campus. A girl not involved in the competition walked through the courtyard and exclaimed, "We're surrounded by math whizzes," and promptly ran from the school.

    Like some of the Palm Harbor students, many of the visitors were old pros at math competitions. Not Jessica Fortner. Friday was the first math competition of her life, and one of the few ever attended by her school, St. Petersburg's Dixie Hollins High School.

    "I'm just a little jumpy because we haven't done it," the sophomore said. "We're happy to be here, (but) we just want to get it over with."

    The four-person teams assembled in the cafeteria and in classrooms, where they would answer 10 questions. Teams that turned in their correct answers early received more points than those who turned them in at the end of four minutes; incorrect answers earned no points.

    With just a few minutes remaining before the start of the contest, Aaron Vorel and Justin Nymark were on their own. The Seminole High School seniors thought they would have to compete in the calculus competition without their teammates, who were in a minor traffic crash on the way there.

    But, wearing rainbow-colored propeller caps, Vorel and Nymark were undaunted.

    "They help us absorb knowledge," Nymark said, and he seemed not to mind when everyone who walked past him spun the propeller.

    Right as the competition was starting, their two teammates walked in, unscathed from the accident.

    For more than an hour, the teams furiously solved problems. They found the sum of the roots and the abscissa of the x intercept and the value of k. They drew graphs, found the sums of critical numbers and simplified radicals.

    An announcer read the scores after some of the problems were completed. After eight questions, it became clear that the Palm Harbor calculus teams were competing against each other for the top spot.

    "Normally we're not so competitive within the team," Palm Harbor senior Evan Adams said later.

    But on this day, the school's top two teams knew exactly where they stood. After five questions, Palm Harbor's Team 2 had a slight edge. In the end, Team 1 edged out Team 2 for the win, and Seminole's Team 1 came in third.

    Palm Harbor's Team 1 won the precalculus contest, followed by Boca Ciega's Team 2 and Tarpon Springs High's Team 2. Shorecrest Prep's Team 1 won algebra 2, followed by St. Petersburg High's Team 1 and Countryside High's Team 1.

    Seminole Middle School's Team 2 won the geometry competition, followed by Safety Harbor Middle's Team 3 and Seminole's Team 1. Safety Harbor Middle's Team 1 won algebra, followed by Bay Point Middle's Team 3 and Seminole Middle's Team 1.

    For Steven Lansel, the president of the Palm Harbor Mu Alpha Theta team, it was a bittersweet day. He was on the winning team in calculus and was proud that his team only missed one problem.

    But he also noted that this is his sixth and final year of math competitions. Colleges and universities typically don't have math teams that compete like the Mu Alpha Theta squads, he said.

    "This has really been my main extracurricular," he said.

    For classmate Adams, this year won't end his involvement with the math team.

    "This is definitely my best experience in high school," he said. "I'll come back during college and help with the competitions."

    Fortner's team didn't finish in one of the top spots Friday, but she didn't care. She still had fun and is looking forward to going to her next math competition, now that she has one under her belt.

    She also pointed out her team had a success of its own.

    "We got four right," she said, and pulled the four slips of paper with correct answers out of her pocket as proof. "That's better than we thought we were going to do."

    -- Staff writer Katherine Gazella can be reached at (727) 445-4182 or gazella@sptimes.com.

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