Competition fires students’ enthusiasm for math

A few days before a math competition for fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders took place at Big Sky Elementary School, Tom Rupsis was explaining what the prizes would be for the top-scoring students.

Rupsis, a Big Sky parent who came up with the idea for the contest last year, said the winning boy and girl in each grade would receive a National Geographic Quadcopter Drone.

To determine the winning school—four took part in the competition on Thursday— judges would add up the scores of the top 10 students from each school, with the winner taking home the Billings Elementary Math Team Cup.

“The idea is that it will be a traveling trophy,” Rupsis said. Then he laughed and added, “Meadowlark has won the first two contests, so it hasn’t traveled very far yet.”

It still hasn’t. After a five-round contest in the Big Sky gym-lunchroom on Thursday, after the pizza had been consumed and the drones distributed to the winning students, it was announced that Meadowlark Elementary School had won once again.


Ed Kemmick/Last Best News

Keatin Hertz, a fifth-grader at Rose Park Elementary, who was dressed for the season, ponders a problem.

And no wonder. The team coach, Amy Leffler, a fifth-grade teacher at Meadowlark, offers an after-school practice once a week, in which the students spend 45 minutes going over problems and puzzles similar to those used in the contest.

Leffler had already been offering an after-school robotics club, so it didn’t take much work to transfer her students’ enthusiasm to prepping for the math competition. So many students—about 60 of them—were showing up that she had to break the group into two sections. And they have fun.

“At the end of the practice, they always want to take home their practice sheets and do them with their families, with their brothers and sisters, and show them to the grandparents,” Leffler said.

Generating that kind of enthusiasm was just what Rupsis had in mind last year, when he suggested such a contest to Big Sky Principal Kim Beatty.

“Way back when I was in high school I was on the math team,” said Rupsis, who grew up in Maryland and is now a self-employed IT project manager and software developer. He had two boys attending Big Sky last year and one this year.

Beatty was supportive, as was the Big Sky PTA, which agreed to put up some money for prizes. Next, Rupsis reached out to other West End schools to see if anyone else was interested.

Arrowhead and Meadowlark schools decided to participate, and during the first competition in November 2015 more than 40 kids took part. That number rose to 60 for the second contest, last spring.

For this fall’s competition on Thursday, Arrowhead was not involved, but Rose Park and Poly Drive schools signed on, joining Meadowlark and Big Sky. The event attracted 80 competitors.

As in previous competitions, the first round involved speed math, using basic arithmetic, followed by number puzzles. The third round had the students doing brain teasers. Those can be just about anything—number patterns, riddles “or just something to make them think,” Rupsis said.

The fourth round involved letter math, in which letters replace numbers in patterns and the kids try to figure out what numbers the letters stand for. The final round involved logic puzzles.

During the contest, it was so quiet in the gym that you could hear pencils scratching on paper. When Rupsis, presiding over the competition, gave a two-minute warning during the first round, one little girl looked across the lunch table at her friend with an expression of shock on her face. But by then a few other students were already done, sitting composed and confident, hands folded.

Aidan Kessler, a sixth-grader at Meadowlark, said he enjoyed the competition because “math has been my favorite subject for a while now,” and “being able to hang out with your friends and do math is fun.”

His favorite rounds were the ones involving letter math and number puzzles, “because I just like doing algebra and stuff.”


Ed Kemmick/Last Best News

Ella Kincaid, a sixth-grader at Poly Drive Elementary, said she really started to understand and enjoy math just this year.

Kraig and Cris Kincaid were waiting in the hallway with other parents during the competition. Their daughter Ella is a sixth-grader at Poly Drive, and Cris said she was surprised when her daughter told them she was going to be in a math contest. Cris said she is the one usually nudging their daughter to get involved in activities.

“Hopefully, this will help her start doing stuff on her own,” Cris said.

Although Ella had never shown much interest in math before this year, her mother added, “she loves it.”

“She’s just not crazy about this part,” Kraig said, referring to the competition.

Ella, speaking just after the contest ended, didn’t betray the slightest bit of nervousness. Asked if she could have imagined just a year or two ago that she’d be involved in a math contest for fun, she said, “No. I think it’s really funny.”

Like Aidan, she said she likes the after-school practice, which Poly Drive also offers, and loves being confronted with a new math problem. “Figuring it out really makes me happy,” she said.

Rupsis said Big Sky has invited only other West End schools so far, for logistical reasons, but he’d like to expand it to include as many Billings schools as are interested.

The competition is already getting almost too large for the Big Sky gym, he said, and he’d like to reach the point where they’re forced to move it to one of the high schools or colleges.

Drum roll, please

Here are the top three boys and girls from each grade in Thursday’s math team contest:

Fourth-grade girls:

1st: Ellwyn Wilson, Meadowlark
2nd: Mcenna Cowger, Rose Park
3rd: Mikaela Willems, Rose Park

Fourth-grade boys:

1st: Levi LInscott, Meadowlark
2nd: Joshua Puckett, Meadowlark
3rd: Jayden Devais, Big Sky

Fifth-grade girls:

1st: Kaelyn Claunch, Big Sky
2nd: Choley Smith, Rose Park
3rd: Emma Croft, Rose Park

Fifth-grade boys:

1st: Joshua Goudy, Rose Park
2nd: Adam Rupsis, Big Sky
3rd: Keatin Hertz, Rose Park

Sixth-grade girls:

1st: Jenna Wagner, Big Sky
2nd: Bo Barthel, Meadowlark
3rd: Emma Leffler, Meadowlark

Sixth-grade boys:

1st: Sam Boese, Meadowlark
2nd: Ethan Lester, Big Sky
3rd: Aidan Kessler, Meadowlark

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