Mathletes Learn Much More than Math

On February 4, eight members of the Quest Forward Academy Mathletes Team made their school community proud at the American Mathematics Competition (AMC) 10 & 12, hosted by the Mathematical Association of America (MAA).

They took a 75-minute exam of 25 questions, where they challenged themselves in a series of intense math problems. The final results of the competition are pending, but more important than the scores, this event provided an opportunity for high school students to develop positive attitudes toward analytical thinking and mathematics that can assist in future careers. It helped to reinforce important skills and Essential Habits that we practice daily, and made our students stronger in many more ways than just math.

During the past term, our Mathletes Team has been preparing for this competition by following the MAA’s Curriculum Inspiration program by MAA ambassador Dr. James Tanton. This program teaches students 10 problem-solving strategies week-by-week. 

I also invited students to take a practice test that, for many of the participants, was surprisingly intimidating and challenging. While the Mathletes Team has deep aptitudes and skills in various areas of mathematics, the practice test intensely covered a range of subjects from Geometry, Advanced Algebra, Trigonometry, Statistics, Probability, and deductive reasoning. I knew the students had not yet reached some of these topics in their coursework. 

For the first time, the bright, skilled mathematics students were beginning to have self-doubt. 

But, this is one of the reasons why I encouraged them to participate in the first place: To have the experience of getting hit hard to then get back up and continue! It was a perfect, real-life, personal lesson in perseverance and Learning from Setbacks.

It’s true in all areas of life, not just in a practice mathematics test: they will experience disappointment, and even failure. We just need to be ready for it, learn from it, and come back stronger and more prepared for success. 

To emphasize this point, I decided to share a personal story with them. When I first took the Mathematics Subject GRE, I did not meet my own goals and expectations, and experienced self-doubt. Through hard work, I recovered stronger and ultimately found success. I was accepted to a PhD program. It was an effective moment of shared experience and gave students some much needed motivation. 

One member of the Mathletes Team, Jaeda, experienced self-doubt after her practice test experience:

“I love to learn new things. We use math in other subjects, such as science to solve problems. When I told Juan about my practice test experience and how I questioned my math capabilities, he decided to share a personal story of his own math challenges to help me understand that I wasn’t the only one to feel this way… I was determined not to give up.

To me QFA is like a family. Mentors… really care about us. I feel a sense of belonging at QFA. It’s also fun to be in the community.”

– Jaeda, Mathlete

The students were energized, and took the initiative to organize extra practice with me outside of our regular Mathletes time. They focused on the process of learning mathematics and not on their performance. They demonstrated great initiative and maintained a growth-mindset!

I am immensely proud of our team. We are so much more than great scores. Our Mathletes team is about engaging in mathematical discourse, practicing skills in a mathematical context, learning how to deal with math anxiety by assessing our emotions when grappling with a tough problem or assignment, gaining strong confidence in math abilities, and collaborating with peers in a fun and challenging environment. We accept students of all skill levels, and foster an environment of sensitivity and support for our teammates.

Jaeda’s parents agree:

“[Juan] was 100% supportive, compassionate, and encouraging! This really helped Jaeda see that she would get over this bump in the road. The night before the AMC10, Jaeda assured us that she was fine and didn’t need our pep talk or reminders about test strategy. Her difficulty with the practice test and the conversations afterward helped her overcome her anxiety. It was as if a different person was taking the test. Jaeda is growing as a person and learning to try new things, take a risk and stretch into new experiences. It’s about math and so much more!”

– Melanie and Paul, Jaeda’s Parents

Students in our classes at Quest Forward Academy come away with so much more than mathematics knowledge. They are empowered and prepared to conquer any task or opportunity they see in front of them, with logic, confidence, and grace.