Districts and chapters held their MathCounts competitions last weekend, which means the past week has been filled with stories like this one from the Peoria Journal-Star about the mathletes.
MathCounts is a middle school math competition that pits 7th and 8th graders against mathletes from their districts first, then around their states (to select state teams), then nationally. Since the competition covers algebra and geometry, in theory, many a mathlete winds up learning these topics a few years ahead of the game, and learns them in a way that is a game. For instance, to be quick at the competition, I learned to find averages not by adding numbers and dividing, but by taking the over/under of where I was aiming and working with these numbers (eg, if Johnny scores an 86, an 85, and a 91 on his first three math tests, what score does he need for an 89 average? You use -3, -4 and +2 to get -5, which means he needs +5, or 94.) This has been more useful than one might imagine in life.
The problem, of course, is that schools with strong MathCounts programs also tend to have strong math programs to start with. So in schools where kids are already getting a solid foundation, they learn some quick tricks, like the one I showed above. In schools were they don't, they don't do very well in the competition. I helped judge the New York City MathCounts three years ago. The Young Women's Leadership School, a local charter school, scored dead last. That made me a little sore; the school has gotten deserved good press for helping bright girls aim for college, but you think they could be a bit more rigorous about math in the meantime. My school in Indiana had no MathCounts team; my mother formed and coached one since no teacher planned to do it. We had a decent run of it; we won the chapter competition my 8th grade year and placed in the state competition. But once my family wasn't involved anymore, the school stopped being involved.
I suppose MathCounts could be most useful in situations where local college math majors come in and coach a team in a school without a great math program. I hope there are a fair number of these teams. If people know of them, let me know. I'd like to profile them here.