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Bemidji High School math league takes the lead in regional meets

From left, Bemidji High School students Ben Fultz and Ian Sweeney-Smith work on a math problem during a math league practice. On the far right are students Megan Jones and Whitney Morin. Pioneer Photo/Monte Draper

Bemidji High School math league takes the lead in regional meets

For some students, the words "math league" can cause a shiver of fear down their spines.

But for the students in the league, it gives them a chance to overcome challenging problems and a place of belonging. And, admittedly, the treats served at meetings are often hard to pass up.

It can be hard to break the math league stereotype - students punching numbers into giant calculators and breaking their pencils while answering three-page math questions - but a visit to today's math league practice or contests paints a different picture.

Sure, students in the Bemidji High School math league use pencils and calculators, but it's all in the name of competition - against other schools or to better their own math skills.

Students from grades 9-12 meet once a week in math teacher Terry Hewitt's classroom to practice algebra, geometry, trigonometry or advanced topics, such as conic sections (the study of cone shapes). The BHS math league has 50 members signed up on the roster this year.

The purpose of attending practices is to make the math team, a team of eight students who compete at monthly math league meets against other schools in the region. While some of the math topics can seem intimidating, students have the choice of competing in just two of the four math categories listed above.

Each meet consists of individual and team events. Individual students are given 12 minutes to solve a problem and teams are given 20 minutes to solve six problems.

In the last four meets, the BHS math league took first place out of the seven teams in the region all four times. With one more meet to go, a home meet on Feb 8, they have their eyes set on going to the state meet.

"It is very difficult for teams to catch us," Hewitt said. "We go to state pretty much every year."

In the past decade, Hewitt said there has only been one year when the league didn't go to state.

"In 2008, we got second place in the region," Hewitt said. "My students stole the trophy and put a ransom note on it saying it wouldn't come back until they received first place."

Last year the trophy was put back as league made an appearance at state and finished 25th.

Hewitt said the league's success is due in part because of the high number of students participating and a math department that offers a lot of math.

"We have a math department that is excellent and provides a lot of opportunities for kids to take a lot of math," Hewitt said. "We push it."

According to Hewitt, no other school in Northern Minnesota has matched the number of points BHS math league students have achieved at regional meets. But one school might be catching up.

"Thief River Falls has really been putting up a good fight," Hewitt said. "We used to be the only school to take 40 kids to a math meet, but they've had between 30-35 kids at recent meets. They usually come in second place."

Despite their consistent wins, Hewitt said the math league has a lot of work to do to do well at the state level.

"We're hoping to do better this year at the state meet," Hewitt said. "I think we could do better if we had more face-to-face competition with some of the schools that do well at the state meet."

Out of 50 students enrolled in the league, only eight can compete at each meet. Hewitt said he has developed his own ranking system based on the students' math abilities that tells him which eight to choose.

Hewitt said the team is rarely exactly the same at each meet, but some students may never be on the team. However, students can still receive a letter by remaining an active member in the league for so many years.

"Any student can join math league," Hewitt said. "But it is very rare you get kids who don't enjoy math."

Hewitt is proud of the trophies the math league has accumulated throughout the years and is pleased that students find they feel a part of something when they join.

"We have an interesting group," he said.

The next math meet is on Feb. 8, and will include an awards ceremony and pizza.