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Pi is sweet, victory is sweeter at math contest

High school students put their problem-solving skills to the test in the battle for accuracy - and speed.

By KATHERINE GAZELLA

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 13, 2000


PALM HARBOR -- Surrounded by hundreds of other students carrying heavy backpacks and graphing calculators, Amanda Renaud spotted a group of teammates and called out to one of them.

"Hey, Pi Boy," she said.

On cue, Michael Galperin rattled off an astonishing string of digits: "3.14159265358979323846264," he said, and stopped only when someone interrupted him. He has memorized the never-ending decimal up to 500 digits.

On Friday, Galperin was in his element. He and Renaud, seniors at Lakewood High School, competed along with about 500 other students at the 10th annual Pinellas County Mathematics Team Competition at Palm Harbor University High School.

The competition is one of the few high school settings where it's cool to be a math wiz. Many of the students advertised their brainpower by calling themselves "geeks" and even writing "Nerd" on their name tags.

"I've been a nerd my whole life," Renaud said. "I personally enjoy it."

The event was a fast-paced blur of logarithms, angle measurements and asymptotes. Students in teams of four furiously worked out problems, trying not only to be right but also to be fast. They earned more points for turning in answers before the four-minute time limit expired, but they earned no points if they got something wrong.

In the end, Southside Fundamental Middle School won the algebra 1 competition, Seminole Middle won in geometry and Palm Harbor University High won algebra 2, precalculus and calculus.

The contest is used to prepare students for later competitions in the region and state, said Renee Fish, a teacher at Palm Harbor University High and one of the organizers of the event.

For the students involved, the competitions are as much about the repartee among like-minded people as they are about winning and losing.

"It's a good way to meet people. They're all kind of like us, because they all like math," said Steven Lansel, a junior at Palm Harbor University High.

Students spoke with pride about their academic abilities, but they also took a few cues from sports teams during the competition. When the correct answers for each problem were announced, many students high-fived their teammates.

"It's really competitive," said Mike Ferzola, a senior at Palm Harbor University High and the president of the school's chapter of Mu Alpha Theta, the national high school math honor society.

His teammate, Kris Lord, agreed.

"We don't play any two-hand-touch math," he joked. "Full-contact."

For some students, the competitive urge is so strong that they sometimes continue the combat, even after the official events have ended.

Galperin said he has gotten in a few "pi-off" competitions, in which he and students from other schools try to name the most digits while his teammates cheer him on.

Mike Barrett, a senior at Lakewood, recounted one of the pi-offs, in which a student from another school was cocky until he learned just how many numbers Galperin had memorized.

"This kid is all bad, and starts reciting pi," Barrett said. "Mike ate him up."

Galperin grinned.

"I ate him up like pie," he said.

His teammates rolled their eyes, but, always supportive, they laughed at his bad joke.

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