For NCES, mathletes program adds up to big success
NORTH CANAAN — Mathlete: a combination of the words math and athlete to describe a person who participates in math competitions. At North Canaan Elementary School (NCES), the mathletes are on a par with the sports stars. It’s cool to be smart, and the top athletes are likely to make academic honor roll, too. On March 7 (after The Lakeville Journal went to press), they were set to compete in the World Education Games World Maths Day. More than 2 million students in more than 200 countries, in kindergarten through high school, would compete for the thrill of victory and real gold medals. Many schools combine it with fundraisers for sponsor UNICEF. Making math light upNCES parent Karen Riccardelli came across the competition while looking for a way to make math fun for her own kids. She got the green light from the school to coordinate an afterschool program and offered it to students in grade four through eight.“We were up against drama club, quiz bowl and the end of the basketball season, so not everyone who wanted to could sign up,” Riccardelli said. “The kids have a lot going on. We started with 18 — and no eighth-graders.”But once the kids got a first look at the fast-paced computer game, and told their friends about it, their numbers were bumped up by half.There are lots of charts and rankings and daily top performers posted on a constantly updated website at www.world mathsday.com. The total number of correct answers was more than 400,000 million as of last weekend. It is all about motivation and making math fun. After their fifth practice session last week, and lots of hours at home, NCES students had logged more than 81,000 correct answers.The global math villageDuring after-school practice, students popped up from places like England, Ireland and several African countries. These are students getting in a last practice session before bed. They might be from New Zealand, Australia or Singapore — youngsters who are getting in early morning practice.lt quickly becomes obvious that they are all speaking the same “language.”“One, two, three ... Go!”Noah Allyn and Connor McGuire pressed “Enter” at the same time. They were hoping the computer controlling the online practice would select them for the same heat. It works like Internet chat rooms. As people sign on, they are grouped together in a “room.” Only in this case, “chatting” is replaced by fingers dancing on the keyboard numbers as students race to correctly answer the most equations in a minute.It would seem with thousands of students online at once, the odds (more math!) would be astronomically against them, but they have landed in the same room several times.For their safety, students are identified only by first name, last initial, country and school.“On the weekends, our kids go on at different times of the day to look for different countries,” Riccardelli said. “We ask them to practice a half hour a day at home. Most of them are on for at least an hour.”The software program, Mathletics, is available for purchase. Riccardelli said it is affordable for families and may be just what parents, and other frustrated homework helpers, need to refresh their math skills. The software covers math through high school and includes very advanced skills.Fifth-grader Maggie Baldwin said she loves math even more now.“Mrs. Johnson made us master all our times tables, so the problems aren’t really hard. But you have to go fast, which is hard.”Students also get to choose one of five levels, which get harder as you go up, but offer challenges as they improve.“I’m a human calculator!” Raeannyn Paruda said. This is a real assessment bestowed by the computer, based on achievements during practice. “Raging Rookie” was Abby Dodge’s “rank.”“I’m not exactly a human calculator yet,” said Emily Abbott, “but I’m working on it.”It all starts in SamoaThe competition begins when midnight comes first to Apia, Samoa, on March 7. It progresses through time zones and a series of competition windows around the globe. As they do in practice, student will see avatars of several other students on their screen, along with their national flag. A bar graph charts each 1 minute race as they answer equations. When everyone has had a chance to compete, the computer will do the math to determine the winners.“Whether any of our kids win or not, they are all winners because their skills improvement was charted at 100 percent, and they are having a great time,” Riccardelli said. Next year, the plan is to also compete in spelling and science, and add a UNICEF fundraiser.