Dancing, shouting countdowns, games where students pretend they are characters from the movie Toy Story. These activities are probably not a regular part of your math class. However, fun is the focus of a yearly math event for middle schoolers at Salisbury University in Maryland. And these kickoff activities are designed to get kids “jazzed up” about the rest of the day’s activities, says Randall Cone. A mathematician and computer scientist at the school, he runs the event.
Those games are just the lead up to the main event: a brain-bending math competition. Called the American Mathematics Competition 8, or AMC 8, its name comes from the fact that it’s open to students in grades eight and under. During AMC 8, students from across the United States take part in events like the one at Salisbury to solve 25 middle-school math problems. They’ve got just 40 minutes to do it.
Math may not sound like fun to some people, but competitions like AMC 8 can be. “The problems are just so unique,” says Marvin Li, 14. “You have a sense of satisfaction when you solve a problem that’s really hard.” He participated in the AMC 8 event at Salisbury University for the first time in 2015. Since then, he’s moved on to the next level: the AMC 10.
Events like these can be more than just an exciting day for the participants. Competitive math holds the power to change lives, notes Cone. Kids from different backgrounds come to such events. And for some, it will be their first chance to discover their talents and interest in math, he says. Nationwide, he claims, AMC 8 is an opportunity for “hundreds of thousands of kids to fall in love with math and science.”
As with athletes who compete in soccer or gymnastics, many mathletes get excited about competitive problem-solving. In the United States, they might compete in increasingly difficult levels of the AMC program, which is run by the Mathematical Association of America (MAA). This group supports math enthusiasts ranging from students to college professors. A few students will go on to compete on the international level, in a high school competition known as the International Mathematical Olympiad (IMO). There’s a similar competition that’s girl’s-only. It’s known as the European Girls’ Mathematical Olympiad (EGMO).
Students who do well in lower levels of the AMC programs earn certificates. Some earn spots to compete in three invitation-only competitions. And each year, a handful of young math whizzes win trips to compete at international events. Brazil, Hong Kong, Switzerland and Romania have hosted recent ones.