WILKES-BARRE — Two high school students started Saturday morning tackling math problems and finished it earning their college tuition.
Wyoming Seminary senior Tyler Martin and junior Le Nguyen best completed math problems in a contest hosted by Wilkes University and the Luzerne County Council of Teachers of Mathematics.
The two competed with 50 other junior and senior math experts hand picked by their teachers for a chance at the two grand prizes — a full-ride scholarship to Wilkes for the top-performing junior and senior mathematician.
The contest, now in its 65th year, is composed of two 20-question sections that challenge students in algebra, geometry and pre-calculus. Ronald Pryor, an assistant Wilkes professor and one of the contest’s chairpersons, said the questions have been designed bypass rote memorization and identify students’ reasoning and logic.
“These test have been through the fire,” Pryor said. “We’ve been doing this for 65 years now and the contest questions are made up (so) that we have a good metric on how their performance will be.”
He said two math department faculty members design the questions and, after working through each problem by themselves, pass them off to other faculty members. He said that while the contest has been around for more than half a century, the same contest construction team has been designing questions for years and its members understand what types of questions will reveal most about students’ understanding.
Steve Gapinski, who has engineered questions for 14 contests, said it gets tough keeping questions fresh year after year.
“Right now, I’m 600 questions deep,” Gapinski said, referring to the total number of problems he has created for the contest.
He said the questions are designed to identify students who can use known math principles and apply them to unusual questions.
“(We take a) mainstream topic and spin it in a way that constructs a challenging question,” Gapinski said. “You can’t say that they haven’t seen the topic, but they haven’t seen the question presented to them in that way.”
Pryor said one of the contest’s purposes is to identify area math superstars and recruit them to the school.
“We’re looking for math people,” Pryor said, but added that victory does not restrict the winning student to the math department. “You could win this and major in music.”
One winner, John Mishanski from Lake-Lehman High School, attended Wilkes after winning the scholarship and now works as a software engineer for Google. Mashinski graduated from Wilkes in 2005.
“We wouldn’t have gotten him here if he didn’t win this contest,” Pryor said.
Mashinski had been offered some impressive scholarship packages from other universities, but Pryor said he wanted to win the contest. Pryor said Mashinski, with the help of a Lake-Lehman teacher, studied archived contest questions that are posted to the council’s website.
“He worked for a whole year on the old contests,” Pryor said.
The grand prize scholarships fully cover tuition and fees for both students’ four-year education to the tune of at least $120,000. The full scholarship still applies even if tuition rates go up, Pryor said. The scholarship does not include housing or college meal plan fees.
Obviously, every student did not go home with a free ride but council of math teachers President Wendy Yedlock said some of the students who entered the contest have gone on to grander adventures.
“The majority of students that I’ve taken in the past have gone further in math,” said Yedlock, who teaches the subject at Hanover Area High School. They’re engineers, actuaries for insurance companies. One is a statistician for the Atlanta Braves baseball team. Another student became a nuclear physicist, she said.
Yedlock agreed that the developing tech and medical industries are calling for competent mathematicians and said she hopes her students learn to appreciate the power found in numbers.
“I want them to hold onto the love of math because math can take you so far in life,” Yedlock said.