Math Steeplechase poses puzzlers for North Coast high schoolers

  • From the left, Santa Rosa High School's Alex Hong, Montgomery High School's Carrie Gao, Elsie Allen High School's McKenna Smyth and Windsor High School's Sam Tran attempt to count marbles through a small hole in a can during the Sonoma County Math Steeplechase at Spring Lake on Wednesday, April 3, 2013. (Conner Jay/The Press Democrat)

Huddled under aged oaks draped in moss, a team of four mathematicians let out a war whoop that shattered an otherwise quiet Wednesday morning.

Team Blue 1 had just nailed the fifth of five questions to earn the maximum 100 points at one station in the annual Math Steeplechase competition at Spring Lake Regional Park.

Team Blue 1 sailed through "What is the product of the 14th and 19th primes?" and other math-heavy problems that resulted in four-digit answers, but faltered on the year "Adams" became president. After much head-scratching, an epiphany.

"Wait. Which Adams?" said Trevor Glynn, a senior at Santa Rosa High School.

"That was clever," said teammate Anthony Dim, a senior at Elsie Allen High School.

Team Blue 1 went on to take third place in the 25th annual competition which drew about 90 high school students from across Sonoma County, as well as a group from St. Helena High School.

"The purpose is to show them that math is not just about book work and problem-doing," said Jim LaFrance, a math teacher at Montgomery High School who helped coordinate Wednesday's event. "Typically, most of them who go out into the workforce are going to be problem-solving as a team."

The event costs about $180 per team, with the money coming from school fundraisers or foundations. Schools pay the cost of hiring substitutes for the teachers who staff the event. Students are treated to deli sandwiches and event T-shirts, as well as prizes and bragging rights for winners.

Students were assigned teams at random and made their way to stations set up at picnic tables located throughout Spring Lake's Jack Rabbit Meadows. An air horn indicated the time was up after 14 minutes per puzzle, and teams moved on. Each station was staffed by a math teacher who recorded the teams' scores.

Teaming students with strangers is part of the challenge, said Bill Spence, a retired Santa Rosa High math teacher who helped launch the steeplechase in 1989 and has never missed an event, even in retirement.

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