BTN LiveBIG: Math made fun at Nebraska

When you ask a student, “What is your favorite subject in school?” it’s not often you’ll hear a resounding “Math!” in reply. In fact, only about 10% of students who take the ACT indicate an interest in pursuing a career in STEM-related fields (science, technology, engineering or math).

Math Day

On November 21, 2013, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln continued its mission to show high school students that math can be fun and encourage them to consider a career in one of the STEM majors, through its 24th annual “Math Day.”

“Math Day” is an all-day event for Nebraska high school students, consisting of an individual competition, including a preliminary 25-question multiple choice test called PROBE I (Problems Requiring Original and Brilliant Effort) and a six-question essay portion (PROBE II), as well as a “Jeopardy!”-style Math Bowl team competition, complete with Alex Trebek-like moderators, buzzers and more.

“We want to do something that is going to stimulate interest in math among students,” said Lindsay Augustyn, UNL’s Outreach and Communications Director at the Center for Science, Mathematics and Computer Education. “It’s very important to make sure that students know what they can do with a math degree.”

The competitive nature of the event sparks interest in a subject that is often stereotyped as “boring.” At “Math Day,” mathematics proves to be anything but dull.

“(The students) get really into it,” said Augustyn. “They all come in their matching t-shirts and are really competitive about the bowl teams.”

The participants had good reason to be excited. The university offered $34,000 in scholarships as prizes.

Ingrid Zhang, a Lincoln East High School student, earned an $8,000 scholarship to Nebraska by placing as “the individual champion,” while the second, third and fourth place finishers were offered $4,000 scholarships to UNL. A three-student team from Lincoln East, including Zhang, also earned the top spot in the Math Bowl.

This year, the Math Bowl reached new heights. The UNL Department of Mathematics welcomed a record-breaking 1,549 students from 109 schools. Participants traveled from as far as Scottsbluff, Neb., which is six hours west of Lincoln.

“It just keeps growing,” noted Augustyn. “Teachers are really big into bringing their kids, because it really is the only event all year that has anything to do with Math and making it exciting, so they really encourage their students (to participate)”.

The day would not have been possible without the help of nearly 300 volunteers, a group that included faculty, alumni, undergraduates, graduate students and former Math Day participants.

Augustyn believes in the importance of mathematics well beyond the classroom.

“Above all, it teaches you better problem solving skills, just critical thinking in general,” said Augustyn. “(It is about) how you reason your way through a problem and figure out alternative solutions. If they’re stumped, there is a reward at the end of (solving a problem).”

“Math Day” will celebrate its 25th anniversary on November 20, 2014. For more information on the event, visit math.unl.edu/programs/mathday.

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