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Math Steeplechase doesn’t divide Sonoma County students, but brings them together

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There were problems at Spring Lake Regional Park on Wednesday.

Good ones! Some of Sonoma County’s sharpest mathematics students divided up into teams and with youthful verve set out to solve them.

About 70 ninth-through-12th graders converged on the Santa Rosa park for the 30th annual Math Steeplechase, an intentionally sociable, timed, station-to-station competition for the numerically disposed.

A keystone of the games, sponsored by the Sonoma County Mathematics Council, is that it’s not and has never been school versus school.

The students are assigned to three- or four-person teams on which they find none of their schoolmates.

“It’s amazing to see,” said Ken Koppelman, a Math Steeplechase pioneer who retired after teaching for more than 30 years at Santa Rosa and Montgomery high schools.

“When the kids go to the first station, they’ve just introduced themselves to each other. After a station or two, you see they are working together, enjoying each other. It’s an amazing social event.”

At one point early on, four teens in the freshman/sophomore division raced the clock to assemble a collection of PVC pipes and connectors into a closed circuit.

Rob Giacomini of Elsie Allen High, Tonantzin Meza of Roseland Collegiate Prep, Lawrence Barretto of Windsor High and Zee Brumbaugh of Santa Rosa High easily solved the puzzle within the allotted 14 minutes.

They said they liked being teamed up with kids they hadn’t met before. Giacomini noted that he spends a great deal of class time with his school’s other serious math students.

He added, “It’s nice to interact with people who aren’t from my own school.”

Teachers monitored each station and assigned a score to how well each team addressed the problem at hand. Organizers of the Math Steeplechase pride themselves on the variety of problems and the degree to which they encourage collaboration.

At one station, upper-division students found a cardboard file box with its lid duct-taped on, a ruler and short piece of wooden dowel. The problem: to calculate the maximum length of dowel that would fit entirely inside the box.

Then there was this challenge, also for the juniors and seniors:

Using the symbols (,), +, —, x, ÷ and √a, and the integers 2, 0, 0, 6, 20, 26, 200 and 206 — in that order — “find representations for as many of the numbers from 1 to 99 as you can.”

The students completed the challenges to the best of their combined ability. With the sounding of the final time’s-up blast from an air horn, they reunited for lunch and the awards ceremony, then headed back to school counting several former strangers as new friends.

You can reach Staff Writer Chris Smith at 707-521-5211 and chris.smith@pressdemocrat.com.

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