The University of Tulsa Department of Mathematics has hosted the MATHCOUNTS East Central Regional for more than three decades. This annual math competition hosts middle school students in individual and team problem-solving challenges. Almost 50 volunteers, including local engineers, teachers and TU faculty members, help facilitate the event. Many other educators, engineers and coaches are behind the scenes throughout the year, mentoring students, presenting workshops and organizing mock challenges in preparation for state and national competition.
Event coordinator Robert Strattan is a retired TU electrical engineering professor who began helping with MATHCOUNTS in 1985. He assists Tulsa engineer Gaylon Pinc with coordination of the regional event. He said the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) exercise teaches students that mental activity is as important and rewarding as physical activity.
“It provides a focus and reason for studying math, using the mind beyond everyday needs,” he said. “MATHCOUNTS gives the thrill of competition and recognition for achievement and camaraderie with like-minded youths.”
TU Associate Professor of Mathematics Peyton Cook has volunteered for more than 30 years as a grader, computer scorer and judge. At the 2018 MATHCOUNTS East Central Regional competition in February, students from 18 local schools participated in two rounds of exams plus a team collaboration event where students solve eight problems.
“We recognize the top three teams in large, medium and small schools along with the top 10 individuals,” Cook said.
MATHCOUNTS is one of the many ways TU engages with the community by welcoming prospective students and parents to campus. Also, the Office of the Provost has a tradition of awarding scholarships to the top 10 individuals. The scholarship funds a three-credit-hour course in mathematics or science when the student becomes eligible for TU enrollment. Some of these top mathletes become TU scholars.
Student success at MATHCOUNTS is attributed partly to dedicated advisers and coaches such as TU’s Marilyn Howard who served as a University School math teacher for 30 years. She taught high school level math including pre-algebra, algebra and geometry to students in the sixth, seventh and eighth grades.
“The kids were fun to work with, and MATHCOUNTS was a good outlet for me because I learned so much,” she said. “The goal is not to be the best but do your best.”
Many students she mentored later attended TU or Ivy League universities to major in a STEM field.
“We focused on helping the kids work together as a team, so they could improve and learn from each other,” Howard said. “MATHCOUNTS students are some of the smartest students in the state.”
Today, she continues to help with TU and other local STEM activities involving the Tulsa Math Teachers’ Circle and the Tulsa Girls’ Math Circle. Her involvement with the TMTC supports math teachers as they learn to engage students in new methods of problem solving.
“It’s a community where teachers can interact with professors and not be afraid to ask questions,” Howard said.
University School math teacher and MATHCOUNTS coach Kevin Vincent worked in the defense and software development industries before he decided to pursue a master’s degree in math at TU. He became a teacher to share his love of math with bright and inquiring minds.
“I try to instill in the students the value of knowing mathematics but more importantly how math relates to the ‘real world,’” Vincent said. “I find it very gratifying to see students grow in their knowledge while understanding the reasons why, not just the how.”
Mathematics freshman Caroline Yaeger remembers visiting TU to participate in MATHCOUNTS events where she discovered the more engaging, problem-solving oriented side of math. She chose to major in it because of its versatility in the job market after graduation.
“MATHCOUNTS incorporates a lot of logic, probability and real-life applications of math in a quick-thinking environment that piqued my interest,” she said. “It definitely influenced what I’m studying today.”
Yaeger plans to add a major to her degree plan at TU and eventually study statistics or economics in graduate school. In the meantime, she has signed up to volunteer at Tulsa Girls’ Math Circle as a way to engage with other students in the community.
“I’m excited to get more involved within the organization and show middle school girls that math is both fun and challenging, but definitely not boring,” she said.