They All Add Up: La Jolla High School math team is 17 (out of 41) in state competition

For the first time in five years, two math squads with 11 students from La Jolla High School drove 122 miles to the CalTech Harvey Mudd Math Competition Dec. 1-2, and one team placed 17th out of 41 statewide teams.

That may seem like a lot of numbers, but it’s nothing compared to what the students needed to consider in answering a series of questions as part of the competition. And not just numbers, the students needed to draw upon their logistical problem-solving skills to solve the complex multi-page equations.

Sponsored by CalTech Harvey Mudd with questions written by its students, the competition is open to all high school teams in California. They were tasked with answering a select few, complicated problems.

“I’m really pleased with their performance,” said faculty advisor Melanie Menders. “La Jolla High hasn’t been (to this competition) in five years because we didn’t have the student momentum and interest. So, it was nice to finish in the top half and make a decent showing.

“We competed against schools that actually offer for credit, an elective with this type of problem-solving, and schools with after-school programs where parents pay money to have their kids learn this type of math and have opportunities to practice. The fact that we showed up and placed 17th was pretty cool.”

Math Club president Aurora de Tagyos added: “It was a lot of fun to get to know other teams ... there were a lot of teams from Los Angeles, San Diego and San Francisco, and we all had an interest in math in common.”

To prepare, the La Jolla teams meet once a week to practice past competition equations, which extend far beyond the reaches of the classroom.

As De Tagyos explained: “While you need math skills, the problems at these competitions are not calculus-based; they are about using logic to approach the problem with the knowledge you have. You explain the process of how you solved a problem and why theorems work and how your knowledge lets you solve the problem.” (But some knowledge of calculus helps.)

In addition to the CalTech Harvey Mudd Math Competition, the La Jolla High School team participates in the California Math League (CaML) and American Mathematics Competitions (AMC) throughout the year.

The CaML is an in-classroom written test, for which the students have 30 minutes to complete six problems on assigned dates and send in their work. Because these are not multi-page equations, Menders offers the following example of a CaML equation: What are all positive integers “n” for which the least common multiple of “n” and 1,000 is 2,000?

In current CaML standings, La Jolla High is in a multi-way tie for seventh place out of 140 schools. “We haven’t been in the top 20 in a long time, so it’s been a great year,” Menders said.

The next AMC is in February. But for this competition, there is a limited number of slots and the best of the best will participate.

Once the competition circuit is complete, La Jolla High will host a “Middle School Math Day” in May, which is open to middle school students who want to participate.

Menders opined: “We have a whole new set of Math Club officers and they are much more energetic (than those of past years) and that has been nice to see.”