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For These Teenage Competitors, the Joy of Math All Adds Up

Westmont's annual MathBowl is a calculated success for Dos Pueblos High.

Dos Pueblos High coach Travis Bower, left, and his Grades 9-10 and 11-12 teams strike a victory pose after the 2009 Westmont College Mathematics Contest. The Chargers squad cleaned up in the competition, sweeping the Team Exam and taking first place in Chalk Talk and the College Bowl Grades 9-10.
Dos Pueblos High coach Travis Bower, left, and his Grades 9-10 and 11-12 teams strike a victory pose after the 2009 Westmont College Mathematics Contest. The Chargers squad cleaned up in the competition, sweeping the Team Exam and taking first place in Chalk Talk and the College Bowl Grades 9-10. (Westmont College photo)

It’s easy to find the Westmont College Mathematics Contest every year, even if you’ve never set foot on campus. Follow the teenagers in matching shirts, grinning through youthful orthodontia, reveling in the company of their mathematically minded cohorts.

Step into several of the classrooms across campus, and you’ll find clusters of adolescents answering questions about cosines and coefficients. It’s this glorious geekdom that brings the Santa Barbara High Math Club out every year to compete, in addition to nine other teams that participated in Saturday’s 22nd Annual Westmont College MathBowl, which was dominated by Dos Pueblos High.

Ken Myers, a junior on the Santa Barbara High team, won second place in the Chalk Talk event, in which he gave a presentation about recurrence relations. Myers pointed to a projection screen full of numbers and explained what a “Fibonacci Sequence” was with the confidence of a college professor, making it easy to forget he’s still in high school.

“These kids are all are smarter than I was at that age,” their teacher, Rob Helms, chuckled between events. He’s been teaching at Santa Barbara High for 28 years and has been at MathBowl with students every year since it started in 1987. His students who have shown up to press buzzers and work out timed equations with other local teenagers have gone on to schools like Stanford, Yale and Harvard. Senior students on the team, Margo Slaff and Alex Huang, have their sights set on Brown and Caltech, respectively.

But even kids who might be classified as “math nerds” need a little praise once in a while, and at the end of a day of competition, the students are invited to attend a banquet and awards ceremony celebrating the participants.

“It’s not that often that kids get recognized for academics,” Helms said. “Usually it’s for performing arts or athletics, but hardly ever math.”

Since the kids on the team are so involved with activities, it’s virtually impossible to find time to meet to practice before the MathBowl, Helms said. So they just show up and give it their best every year — and seem to have a lot of fun in the process.

Junior Andrew Adams is a prime example. The 16-year-old has been to MathBowl twice and is somewhat of a renaissance man. The night before the MathBowl, he had finished a basketball game with the Dons team, and the next day, he’d be playing saxophone in his school’s jazz band. That in addition to mock trial, water polo and acting as vice president of the Key Club. Even though the team didn’t place this time, Adams said he’ll be back for more next year.

Santa Barbara High's problem solvers at work.
Santa Barbara High’s problem solvers at work. (Lara Cooper / Noozhawk photo)
“Within the circle of the smart kids, there’s no stigma against math,” Adams said. “But with other kids, they don’t understand it and don’t like it, so what other response would you have?”

Adams said it’s just fun to be around people who enjoy what he does.

Saturday’s winners:

Chalk Talk

» First place: Nicholas Su, Dos Pueblos

» Second: Ken Myers, Santa Barbara

College Bowl

» Grades 9-10: Dos Pueblos, coached by Travis Bower

» Grades 11-12: Cate, coached by Frank Griffin

Team Exam

» Grades 9-10: Dos Pueblos

» Grades 11-12: Dos Pueblos

School Winner

» Dos Pueblos

Other schools competing Saturday were Bishop Diego, Crescenta Valley, Oaks Christian, Providence Hall, San Marcos, Santa Barbara Family and Thacher.

Even though Dos Pueblos ended up taking first place, Helms and the Dons squad didn’t seem phased.

“The primary goal for our team is to have fun,” he said. “They all look forward to it, and afterward, they tell me how much they enjoyed the competition.”

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