Exponential Fun; Math Masters brings students together for competition

Published 9:10 am Friday, April 26, 2019

The limit does not exist for students competing in Thursday’s math competition.

Around 150 fifth grade students from 14 school districts in Minnesota were hunched over sheets of paper inside Ove Berven Gym at Austin High School. Their fingers quickly clicked the buttons on their calculators, and there was intense focus on the problems set before them.

One of those young mathletes included JB Holtorf, an IJ Holton Intermediate School student.

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“I like exponents because they’re simpler to write out,” Holtorf said excitedly. “Math’s one of my favorite subjects. I like the fact we got cookies. I think scores go down if we’re hungry.”

For three hours, fifth grade students competed individually and in teams through rounds of fact drills, problem solving and more on tests and questions formulated by St. Cloud State University staff.

One hundred and 50 students from 14 school districts gathered in Ove Berven Gym at Austin High School Thursday for the annual Math Masters competition.

Math Masters challenges students to use critical thinking in mathematics while at the same time recognizing academic effort and achievement.

While now more than 5,500 students compete in Math Masters, the roots of the program have always been in Austin. The history of the competition goes back to 1989 with the first competition for fifth graders with 44 schools statewide participating.

As the program started to grow, the competition expanded to include sixth grade students and now includes competitors from others states such as South Dakota, North Dakota and Wisconsin. This program started with a grant written by former Austin elementary school principal Lewis Aase and Julia Espe, former gifted and talented coordinator.

“It’s a really neat competition,” said Janel Horner, executive director of Math Masters of Minnesota. “You can tell there’s a difference between the fifth graders who are louder and excited to be competing for the first time, and the sixth graders who are more focused and quiet and know what to expect. It’s really fun to watch.”

Thanks to sponsors such as The Hormel Foundation, IBM and St. Cloud State University, as well as Austin Public Schools, generations of students have experienced the thrill of competing academically against other peers from the region who share similar passions and interests in mathematics.

Hayfield student Paisley Scanlan studies a problem during Math Masters Thursday morning in Ove Berven Gym at Austin High School.

The top winners from the competitions will be recognized at a Minnesota Twins game later this season.

Neveln Elementary School Principal David Wolff has been a part of Math Masters for seven years. He oversaw coaches during his prior position as the gifted and talented coordinator and also volunteered as the emcee for the last two years.

Seeing young students getting excited over the opportunity to test their intelligence as well as apply what they learned in class was rewarding and encouraging for him. While most would think of athletics, Wolff also believes that celebrating academics and the arts additionally builds on the student’s experiences in education.

“This is a wonderful opportunity for our students to compete against others in a unique way and celebrate academics in addition to athletics,” Wolff said. “These teams have been practicing for months. It’s really amazing to see the interest in math and to enjoy the competition. We’re really building the Triple A of arts, academics and athletics and teaching to the whole student and not just parts.”