February 18, 2021
In 1999, MATHCOUNTS introduced the world to the term “Mathlete”. With the importance of strong math skills and the popularity of the MATHCOUNTS competition increasing, we’ve had more and more parents ask us what it means to be a Mathlete, and whether or not their child would be a good fit to participate in the flourishing MathCounts’ competition. This article defines what it means to be a Mathlete, the benefits of becoming one, and how you and your child can get started.
What is Mathlete?
“Mathlete” is a registered trademark of the MATHCOUNTS Foundation. By definition, a student or individual of any age who competes in the MATHCOUNTS competition is a Mathlete. However, being a Mathlete goes beyond the competition and includes a focus on problem-solving and optimizing one’s approach through reflective practice.
What are the positive effects of being a Mathlete?
As with much in life, there is a compounding effect when preparing for and participating in academic competitions early in a child’s development. Elementary and middle school students who participate in academic competitions build a strong foundation in mathematics and problem-solving. Oftentimes, this early development yields better academic performance, increased self-confidence, and advanced critical thinking skills throughout the child’s growth and into adulthood.
1. Inspire curiosity and improve real life problem-solving skills
What is the point of having a tool if you do not know how or when to use it? Many students learn about different formulas and other mathematical concepts, but have trouble applying them to real life situations. “Where will I ever use this?” has become a common question amongst disengaged and uninspired students.
This lack of inspiration is symptomatic of a larger issue with concept-driven curriculums at school. Typical math classes focus on teaching concepts, but fail to inspire curiosity because they do not place equal importance on applying these concepts to real life situations that drive value. As a result, students view mathematics as just something to learn for a test without grasping how important and impactful the skills can be in their own lives.
Here’s an example of how Mathlete’s become inspired:
A student learning about quadratic equations and graphs should understand how to solve for variable X, but may ask the question: “Where will I ever use quadratic equations and graphing the parabola?” Without a compelling reason or application, this important concept and function will quickly be viewed as a chore to get good grades and fulfill a requirement. As parents wanting the best for our children, we must recognize this is a doomsday scenario for creativity, ambition, and inspiration.
On the flip side, that same student could easily be engaged in discussion about modeling the path of a soccer ball in the air and applying that model to predict how soon and how far away it will land. All of a sudden, the student is in a situation that compels curiosity. Armed with a deeper, more nuanced understanding of the world around them, other questions and applications will arise to solidify the concept. The student will start to understand and appreciate the impact, importance, and beauty behind the concepts they’re learning. As educators this is our mission: teaching our students while empowering them to solve problems capable of transforming the world around them.
MATHCOUNTS competitions are centered around solving word problems that apply mathematical concepts to real life situations in a creative and challenging way. Becoming a Mathlete—in other words, preparing for and participating in the MATHCOUNTS competition—will regularly expose your child to challenges that address the gaps that exist with concept-driven curriculums. The result? An inspired, ambitious problem-solver capable of learning independently – driven by their own curiosity and the enjoyment of their own discoveries.
2. Build confidence and higher-level thinking
There is an important distinction between a student that is demoralized by a lack of inspiration, and a student who is demoralized by a lack of self-confidence. Typically, the latter manifests later in a student’s academic career when the complexity of the problems they need to solve are increased.
Participating in academic competitions like MATHCOUNTS, AMC 8, and MOEMS can drive academic success, along with a sense of encouragement and accomplishment. However, it is important to get an assessment before diving into preparation. That way, your child will establish a starting point where they will be appropriately challenged and engaged while building confidence with each problem they solve in preparation for the competition. This idea of accumulating small wins while learning from mistakes and continuously improving will exponentially increase their persistence, self-confidence, and propensity for academic achievement.
3. Enable a more productive future
Elon Musk once said, “You get paid in direct proportion to the difficulty of the problems you solve.” While not financially motivated, Mathletes are especially primed to solve difficult problems. As a result of the encouragement and sense of accomplishment created by MATHCOUNTS and other academic competitions, students are prepared to persevere through complex problems. They know how to deconstruct big problems into smaller units and look for a solution which may not be obvious at first glance. These characteristics extend well beyond the classroom and academic competitions.
This is because problem solving goes far beyond repetitive drills by involving important foundational skills such as concept formation, perceptive big-picture thinking, visualization, logical deduction, creative idea generation, critical thinking, practical application, and synthesizing various ideas and concepts.
Academic competitions like MATHCOUNTS, MOEMS, and AMC 8/10/12 challenge students to expand their critical thinking, tenacity, and grit. In addition, students are equipped to successfully perform under pressure and deliver on time. In other words, whether it’s an academic competition, interview, job task, or simply a difficult situation, Mathletes are equipped with the foundational skills and characteristics to tackle any tough situation effectively . These skills have helped our students navigate to successful and lucrative careers in various industries.
How do we get started?
The process of becoming a Mathlete typically involves a mix of at-home practice, working with an enrichment center, and connecting with like-minded peers in a Mathlete club. Here are a few tips to help you get started:
1. Start with an assessment
It’s important to start your child off with problems appropriate for their level. If their starting point is too challenging, they may become demotivated. If the starting point is too easy, they may become disengaged. An assessment will identify an ideal starting point and a plan to get started.
2. Introduce them to MATHCOUNTS problems and brain teasers
MATHCOUNTS problems and brain teasers can motivate your child to practice and discover a sense of accomplishment from conquering word problems. Puzzles and certain types of video games can also encourage intellectual growth.
Here is an example word problem problem from Singapore Math:
“Wendy spends ⅗ of her money on 3 bowls and 8 plates. With the rest of the money she can buy another 6 bowls. If she decides to spend all her money on plates instead how many plates can she buy?”
An adult may already be writing an equation to solve this problem since their algebra skills are more developed. But, it is important to note that this question is being presented to a 4th grade student who hasn’t yet built their algebra skills.
You can help them approach this problem through reasoning. Ask questions like:
- Do you think the bowl cost more, or that the plates cost more?
- What fraction of the money did she spend on 3 bowls and 8 plates?
- What fraction of the money did she spend on 6 bowls?
This can help stimulate further discussion and help develop their fraction concepts which may still be raw.
3. Find the right enrichment program
As a parent, you may not always have the time to dedicate to helping your child practice and cultivate their skills. By finding the right enrichment program, you can give them a massive boost. You should look for programs that:
- Encourage the independent learner.
- Find the balance between the teacher and the independent learner. It is important to find the balance because a student with insufficient help may not make any forward progress, and a student with too much help loses out on the feeling of accomplishment since they have essentially been walked to the answers.
- Cultivates an excitement to learn while still challenging their student’s curiosity.
4. Join a Mathlete club
MATHCOUNTS competitions can not only help improve your child’s skills, but also help to improve a student’s interpersonal relationships with their peers through their participation in school clubs, AOPS (Art of Problem Solving) chat rooms and tools, and here at the Study Huddle’s Mathlete Club. Math clubs encourage students to interact with their peers in the shared interest of problem solving.
Here at The Study Huddle our methodology encompasses creating successful individual learners through our Mathlete Club. We recognize that the process of becoming an independent learner is not easy. Our Mathlete Club meets regularly online and is a platform for nurturing our students’ problem-solving skills through productive exercises and healthy competition that reflects the competitive and collaborative nature of MATHCOUNTS competitions. The Study Huddle’s Mathlete Club is a great place for a student to not only challenge themselves with classes and problems tailor made for them, but also a great place to connect with their peers as well!