A “mathlete” competes in the spelling-bee-style elimination round of the Mathcounts regionals last month at UCI. The state finals will be held March 19 at the Student Center. Kerrin Piche Serna / University Communications

UCI hosts middle school ‘mathletes’

Students exercise their computational skills in regional round of nationwide competition.

Each spring, excited middle school math whizzes from across California gather at UC Irvine for the regional and state rounds of Mathcounts, a nationwide competition designed to boost and recognize the math skills of public school students.

Sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade “mathletes” spend the morning working in teams to solve equations and, in the afternoon, compete fiercely in a spelling-bee-style elimination that determines a single star.

At the regional contest in February, Venado Middle School student Michelle Chen, of Irvine, won the afternoon round – to the surprise of many. “In my four years at UCI, I’ve never seen a girl even get second!” marvels judge Sarah Eichhorn, assistant vice chair of undergraduate studies for the mathematics department.

The state finals will be held Saturday, March 19, in the UCI Student Center’s Pacific Ballroom from 9 a.m. until about 3 p.m. – or whenever the last contender correctly answers the last tough problem. The winner will travel to Washington, D.C., in May for the national competition.

Math department Chair Hongkai Zhao credits his faculty and staff for months of work on the event – especially Professor Emeritus Bernard Russo, longtime head of the Mathcounts committee, and undergraduate program coordinator Satsuki Koyama Shumate, who handles the logistics.

“They spend a lot of time and effort taking care of the details,” Zhao says. “This is a very popular and exciting event for both the students and their parents.”