MathCounts Problems, Practice, and New Friends

March 25, 2021 at 12:37 pm Leave a comment

Later today, my sons will represent Sellwood Middle School at the Oregon State MathCounts competition; and, if they do well enough, they’ll represent Oregon at the 2021 Raytheon Technologies MathCounts National Competition. They were invited to compete in the state competition today because they finished first and second in the local MathCounts competition:

Plaques given to me by MathCounts,
because I have very talented sons.

The local MathCounts organizers hosted a virtual celebration for participants, and at the end, I asked if any students from other schools who qualified for the state competition would be interested in some joint practice sessions. As a result, the coach and two students from Access Academy joined Alex, Eli, and me for two 90-minute sessions this past week, during which we solved some previous state- and national-level problems. One with which we had great fun and lots of discussion was about cryptocodes:

A certain cryptocode must contain one letter from the set {X, K, M, Z} and three distinct letters from the set {W, X, Y, Z}. The four letters can be arranged in any order, and since X and Z are in both sets, these letters may each appear twice in an arrangement. How many cryptocodes are possible?

2017 MathCounts National Competition, Target Round, Problem 8

When asked for their answers, Alex suggested a number that was 24 too low, and Eli gave a number that was 24 too high. After discussing the solution, the other coach said, “Alex and Eli, I think it’s awesome that the average of your answers was the correct answer! Is that because you’re twins?” Now, that’s funny.

A video solution from Sjoberg Math is available on YouTube; my solution is below.

I’m occasionally asked how to prepare for MathCounts competitions. Our in-home preparation program involved several parts:

  • Leave math and puzzle books — such as those written by Ben Orlin, Alex Bellos, and Martin Gardner — on the living room table for them to discover.
  • Watch YouTube videos — such as those from Numberphile, Matt Parker, and 3Blue1Brown — to see that math can be fun (and that math people can be funny).
  • Talk about math and solve problems at the dinner table. One of our favorites is determining the number of clinks that happen after a toast, when everyone at the table offers “Cheers!” and taps glasses with everyone else.
  • Use the Art of Problem Solving‘s MathCounts Trainer. Of note, my sons discovered this on their own and started using it because they enjoy solving problems, not because they were training.
  • Complete a few MathCounts competitions from previous years. This is, in fact, the only part of the regimen that was actual training, and all students in our math club did two practice competitions prior to the local competition. The main purposes were to expose them to the types of questions on MathCounts competitions; to prepare them for the intensity of the competition (they are presented with 38 questions to be attempted in about 90 minutes); and, most importantly, to prepare them for the reality that they likely won’t get all of the questions correct, which, for most math club students, stands in stark contrast to their performance on the assessments they complete in their regular math class.

I offer this list to anyone who is coaching or interested in coaching a MathCounts team. The purpose of MathCounts is to get students excited about math; the stated mission is “to build confidence and improve attitudes about math and problem solving.” Winning may be fun, but it’s not the goal. To quote Boris Becker, “I love the winning. I can take the losing. But most of all, I love to play.” MathCounts provides students a chance to play with math, and most of them won’t win. Still, it’s an amazing opportunity to show kids how much fun math can be.

There are 16 ways to choose the four letters for a cryptocode. The codes in blue text (eight combinations in the middle columns) can each be arranged in 4! = 24 ways.


The codes in green text (six combinations in the first and last column) have a repeating letter (either X or Z), so they can be arranged in 4!/2! = 12 ways each.

Finally, the codes in red bold text (one combination in the first and last column) can also be arranged in 4! = 24 ways — but watch out! They’re the same sets, both consisting of W, X, Y, and Z. So only count that set once, not twice.

In total, then, there are 9(24) + 6(12) cryptocodes. Alex explained that this could be computed by rewriting it as 18(12) + 6(12) = 24 × 12, and one of the students from Access Academy rewrote it as 9(24) + 3(24) = 12 × 24. Both obviously reveal the answer, 288 cryptocodes.

I’m 99% certain that that’s the correct answer. And I’m 100% certain that it’s two gross.

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Happy as L Solutions

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About MJ4MF

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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Math Jokes 4 Mathy Folks is available from Amazon, Borders, Barnes & Noble, NCTM, Robert D. Reed Publishers, and other purveyors of exceptional literature.

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