Milwaukee mathletes prepare to compete

The old joke runs, there are three kinds of people: those that can do math and those that can’t.

Among the first group are America’s young mathletes. And the local numbers kids face off in the Greater Milwaukee Area MATHCOUNTS competition, which is held this year on Feb. 5 at Milwaukee School of Engineering. Public and private middle schools take part in the event.

When the event takes place, in advance of the state finals in March, which ultimately lead top finishers to the nationals, all eyes will be on Roosevelt Middle School of the Arts’ seventh grader Stephen Wasielewski, who made it to the national finals in Florida last year, says local coordinator Todd Stelmacher, a civil engineer who works at Symbiont here in the Milwaukee area.

“It’s amazing that our top mathlete from the local competition, a sixth grader, finished in the top four in Madison, and went to Orlando last year,” enthuses Stelmacher. “He’ll be back this year and next!”

MATHCOUNTS Foundation was launched in 1984 to, in its words, “promote math excellence among U.S. middle school students.”

The competition is sponsored by The National Society of Professional Engineers and the Wisconsin chapter supports the state and local competitions. It was via the society that Stelmacher became involved about 8 years ago.

Stelmacher works with about 20 other volunteers, including the ones who proctor the “math bee” on game day.

The competition has both oral and written rounds and team and individual challenges and focuses on the National Council of Teachers in Mathematics’ standards for sixth through eighth grade.

The competition kicks off around 9 on a Saturday morning in what will likely be a chilly Downtown Milwaukee, with about 125 mathletes competing to advance to the next round.

“The Mathletes solve series of individual, timed written problems,” says Stelmacher. “After the individual competition we split into four-person teams and the teams work together to solve a set of problems.”

While the competitors and coaches are cooling down and chowing down on lunch, MATHSCORES volunteer scorers will be busy tabulating results of the morning’s heats. In the afternoon, the competition takes on a format that Bob Barker would appreciate.

“We call the top individual finishers to the front of the room and hold a playoff in a game show format so everyone can watch these exceptional students in action,” says Stelmacher. “It’s impressive and that’s the most like the spelling bee that you’re familiar with.”

Stelmacher says the public is welcome to attend the afternoon playoff round.

At the end of the day, trophies are awarded and the top teams and individuals mark the state competition date in their calendars and hope to be among the top four Wisconsin finishers. They’ll head to Washington DC for the national championship May 5-8.

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