By Pat Pratt
The Illinois High School Math Contest State Finals will have a local addition in 2023 – the numerical wizards of Triad High School.
The Triad Math Team in February had multiple students and teams, across grade levels, place at regionals and qualify for the event on April 22 hosted by Illinois State University. There, they will face-off with some of the brightest students in the state.
Traid teacher Jennifer Mallette, who along with teacher Beth Franks serves as the team’s coach, explains how the competitions work. While some of the competitive tests are just traditional problems with pen and paper, others involve calculators, and some tests are focused on more advanced theories for the students to work through.
“We have individual tests where each student just goes into a room and they take their level of test,” Mallette said. “You compete against other people of your age. Then all of those scores are combined for a team score. So you’re not sitting together taking the test, but it combines for a team score.”
For those not as fluent in math as the team members, the tests would indeed pose a challenge as they are designed to be difficult, even for a numbers whiz like Triad senior and team captain Elliot Jaeger.
“I think the sets are really challenging,” Jaeger said. “And they’re challenging no matter how old you are. For seniors, you’ll get questions from all the topics and it’s the challenge of memorization and recall. For the underclassmen, it’s challenging what you know. And so no matter where you are, you’re always being pushed.”
Team captain Jordan Young mirrored that sentiment, saying a perfect score on one of the competitive tests was unheard of. Top scorers usually achieve around what in terms of a traditional letter grade would be a “D-.”
“The tests are hard – the top scorers usually get like 60%,” Young said. “So there’s always a good chunk of stuff that nobody knows how to do.”
Some of the competition also focuses on teamwork, where student groups composed of one, freshmen, sophomore, junior and senior are put together and asked to answer a set of questions. The students have to break up the sets among themselves, garner responses and are then judged cumulatively
“They have to hurry and divvy out the problem so that ‘you’ answer this question, ‘you’ answer this question, and then it’s a team score that comes back together,” Mallette said. “So it is a camaraderie also of working together and knowing your strengths and weaknesses.”
That camradire is also the reason some students may be drawn to math teams, the members said. Jaeger joined when she moved to Triad schools in recent years to find some like-minded friends, which she says she did.
“The math team, a lot of the time, is for the people that like math the most, sure,” Jaeger said. “But you can make friends in the math team that will help you do better in your class too. It helped me when I first joined, because I was new to the school to know people like in my classes who also like the things that I did.”
Both team captains say they plan to use their mathematics skills in their careers. Jaeger is planning on studying biochemistry and Young is planning on majoring in mathematics. The captains are also using their skills to help others, who may be struggling within some of the more difficult concepts.
“I would say it creates a culture of students who do have that love of math but also want to share with each other,” Mallette said. “These two have been coming in to help really build a solid freshman base. Our juniors are very strong. We do have a couple really strong sophomores, but we’re really trying to build it.”