Fun and Sun at 2013 MathCounts National Competition

May 20, 2013 at 7:00 pm 6 comments

On May 10, I attended the MathCounts National Competition in Washington, DC.

From my perspective, the most important part of the event was the world-record attempt to place 244 middle school students, 61 coaches, and 20 advisors into an arrangement of the first 25 rows of Pascal’s Triangle. (As the chair of the MathCounts Question Writing Committee, I was counted among the advisors.) This may sound easy — after all, each term of Pascal’s Triangle is the sum of the two numbers above it, and the triangle is vertically symmetric. How hard can it be to arrange people holding the numbers?

Well, there were two pieces to this attempt that increased the difficulty level. First, no one knew what number they would get ahead of time. Each of us received a sealed manila envelope, and inside was a number from Pascal’s Triangle printed on a piece of 8.5″ × 11″ cardstock. We weren’t allowed to open our envelopes until given the signal to begin.

Second, the folks from Guinness required that we accomplish this feat in under 10 minutes. (Unbeknownst to me, if you want to set a benchmark for a Guinness World Record, you can’t just call the folks at Guinness and tell them that you were able to remove all the hairs from your chihuahua using only a pair of tweezers in 3 days, 16 hours, and 34 minutes, for example, and expect that they’ll include you in the book. Instead, you have to call Guinness ahead of time, tell them what you’re planning to do, and then they’ll tell you how fast you’ll have to do it for them to consider it worthy of inclusion.)

An adjudicator from Guinness was there to officiate and ensure that there was no funny business. He confirmed that all 25 rows were assembled correctly, and because we were able to complete the triangle in an astounding 6 minutes, 16.5 seconds, we set a Guinness World Record. This is what we looked like upon completion:

Pascal's Triangle

I’m along the right side of the triangle, holding a 9. You may not know what I look like, but I’m still fairly easy to spot — even sitting down, I’m quite a bit taller than the middle school students who surrounded me.

[Update 5/21/13: A video of the attempt was uploaded to YouTube by one of the participant’s father. Major kudos to the MathCounts staff and the folks at the Art of Problem Solving, who devised the clever scheme used to shuffle folks into their appropriate places.]

The Countdown Round — a Jeopardy-like event where twelve kids, arranged in a tournament bracket format, compete head-to-head to answer questions faster than their opponent — is the culmination of the event. The winning question from this year’s Countdown Round was:

What is the greatest integer that must be a factor of the sum of any four consecutive positive odd integers?

Alec Sun was crowned national champion when he gave the correct answer to this question. (Which he did in less than 20 seconds, by the way. You can have more time than that, but you won’t find the answer on this page.)

The Countdown Round was moderated by Lou DiGioia, executive director of MathCounts. During the round, he set up a fantastic joke.

When Akshaj Kadaveru, a seventh-grader from Virginia, took the stage for the Countdown Round, Lou asked him, “You’re a local. What’s one place in Washington, DC, that you’d recommend your fellow competitors see during their visit to the nation’s capital?”

Akshaj suggested the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” said Lou. “The answer we were looking for is the zoo.” And he held up a piece of paper with the word ZOO.

A little while later, another competitor from Virginia, seventh-grader Franklyn Wang, took the stage. Lou asked him the same question about which place out-of-town competitors should visit.

“This hotel!” Franklyn giggled into his microphone.

“Actually,” said Lou, “the correct answer is the zoo.” Again, Lou held up a piece of paper with the word ZOO.

When Alec Sun took the stage, Lou explained to the crowd that Alec was the only competitor in the history of MathCounts to make it to the Countdown Round three straight years. “But,” Lou said to the audience, “I was talking to Alec yesterday, and he told me that he was nervous. In his two previous appearances, he hadn’t answered a single question. I’d really hate for him to leave the stage today without having answered at least one question correctly. So, Alec,” he said, turning to the young man, “I’m going to give you a non-math question to answer. It’s not a softball — you’re really gonna have to think about this one. But I’m confident you can do it.” And then Lou asked him, “Alec, what is one place you’d recommend that folks visit while they’re in town this weekend?”

“Uh… the zoo?” Alec asked.

“Correct!” yelled Lou, holding the piece of paper in the air. “The zoo!” And the entire room exploded into applause.

Who said that math people can’t be funny?

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6 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Chris Smith  |  May 21, 2013 at 5:02 pm

    Sounds like excellent fun. Well done to every digit in that massive Pascal’s Triangle 🙂

    • 2. venneblock  |  May 21, 2013 at 9:56 pm

      It was. I must admit, I thought it was a little silly when the idea was first explained to me. But I’m glad I was part of it. Most fun I’ve had in quite a while!

  • 3. Melena Hulett  |  September 12, 2013 at 11:12 am

    Thank you for posting this! I was there also…coach of the New Mexico team. I was on the other side of the triangle, number 8. It was a lot of fun and I continue to show and talk about this event with my current students. They are also amazed! My certificate hangs proudly in my classroom!

    • 4. venneblock  |  September 20, 2013 at 9:22 pm

      Sorry we didn’t get a chance to meet, Melena! I’ll probably attend the National Competition in 2014 and 2015, if either of them are in DC. Maybe we can connect!

  • 5. sat25940  |  October 12, 2015 at 11:41 am

    I went to MATHCOUNTS Nationals 2013, and I must say that it was one of the best experiences of my life, even though I didn’t do as well as I wanted. (I’m from AL)

    • 6. venneblock  |  October 12, 2015 at 9:16 pm

      Awesome! I’ve yet to meet a former mathlete who didn’t have a great experience at the MathCounts National Competition. Glad you enjoyed it!


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The Math Jokes 4 Mathy Folks blog is an online extension to the book Math Jokes 4 Mathy Folks. The blog contains jokes submitted by readers, new jokes discovered by the author, details about speaking appearances and workshops, and other random bits of information that might be interesting to the strange folks who like math jokes.

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