Cambridgeport Mathletes Compete Head To Head In Online Arena

It was 2:45PM on Monday, September 19, the first meeting of the Cambridgeport Math Olympiads club. The students, huddled over notebooks with pencils scratching, were already "in training" on a word problem: "In three bowling games, Alice scores 139, 143, and 144. What score will Alice need in a fourth game in order to have an average score of 145 for all four games?"

mathletes.jpgAt the whiteboard was Mary Elizabeth Cranton, Cambridge's own "tri-mathlete": Cranton is Cambridgeport's Math Olympiads coordinator, one of its 1st, 4th, and 5th grade math teacher, and a parent of three students at the school. "What are general problem-solving strategies?" she asked, marker in hand. Students called out "Multiples!" and "Use equations that you know!" Throughout the practice students added other tips to the board, such as "Draw a picture," "Make a quick diagram" and "Work backwards."

For the 21 Cambridgeport students who signed up, this year's Mathematical Olympiads for Elementary and Middle Schools (MOEMS) will prove no less challenging than last year's, when two team members ranked in the top 10 percent nationally. Cambridgeport competes with thousands of students through the MOEMS, which distributes contest questions five times per year and awards badges or pins to winners in the top 50 percent, 20 percent, and 10 percent. Some school teams choose only top performing students for competition, to raise overall school rankings, but Cambridgeport allows all mathletes to enter.

mathletes2.pngThe five contest dates plus the weekly practice sessions are designed to encourage enthusiasm for problem solving, deepen students' understanding of math concepts, and help students consider concepts new to them. Cranton likes how they challenge the kids with problems they may not have seen before, ones even adults have trouble with. "In the classroom we can't spend an entire class period on just one or two problems," she says. "They're learning many other skills and pieces of math too."

Student collaboration underlies every practice session, as it does all math classes at Cambridgeport. On contest days, however, each student is on his or her own to work through five questions in 26 minutes. "All that matters for each problem is the correct answer," says Cranton. "I enter online "yes" or "no" if they got it right. We go over them right afterward—they go home pretty much knowing how they did."

Recording the answers online also means each individual performance becomes part of the statistics. "It's really interesting to be able to say to the students, "Throughout the country only 4 percent of students got that question right, however 70 percent got this other one right."

An added challenge is not missing contest days. Once you miss one, you get zero points (out of five) for that contest. "A very small number of students in the country gets 25 points over the whole year," Cranton says.

The MOEMS includes students from 4th through 8th grades, with separate questions for older and younger students. For more info, visit their web site.
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