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ORAU Sponsors Largest Middle School Math Bowl in Tennessee

Experts Agree Middle School Age Group Critical for Encouraging Interest in STEM Disciplines

May 1, 2007

Oak Ridge, Tenn.—Jack Li and Leon Zhang are used to a little friendly competition with each other in their eighth grade math class at Jefferson Middle School in Oak Ridge. However, on Friday, April 27, they competed against each other and more than 300 other middle school students from East Tennessee in the Seventh Annual Middle School Math Bowl, presented by Pellissippi State Technical Community College and sponsored by Oak Ridge Associated Universities (ORAU). The pair finished first and second respectively in the eighth grade division, leading their school to first place for Best All-Around School at that grade level.

Li and Zhang each scored 125 out of a possible 150 points, with Li pulling out the win on a tie breaker.

“I was convinced that Leon beat me, because he’s beat me in a few competitions. But we’re still friends,” Li said. “My classmates really supported me. And I really have to thank my teacher Ms. Faulkner and my math teacher Mr. Aylor, and my parents also helped me study at home.”

The competition, which took place Friday morning at Pellissippi State’s Hardin Valley Campus, featured a unique 30-question test for each of the three grade divisions. Each test was designed by college math professors from across the state of Tennessee. When students finished their tests, they headed to Zuma Fun Center in Knoxville for an ORAU-sponsored lunch and time to unwind with video games, go carts and miniature golf. Jonathan Lamb, a Pellissippi State math professor who organized the contest, said that the fun students have at the Math Bowl is a key factor in the event’s success.

“The idea was just to have an encouraging competition for middle school students,” Lamb said. “Often times it’s about the middle school age when students start to get turned away from mathematics, so we wanted to have a competition to encourage them, also as a rewards day where they can come in, compete, have fun. Fun is the main idea for the day.”

Lamb said that Pellissippi State’s competition has now become a model for other middle school math bowls, including one hosted by Walters State Community College. According to Lamb, the Pellissippi State Middle School Math Bowl has developed a great reputation with area middle schools because it offers larger prizes than the others thanks to ORAU’s sponsorship.

“ORAU has really stepped up our competition and made it more prestigious, more fun for the students, so we’re very grateful for all of that support,” Lamb said.

Of course the event is more than just fun and games. The competition is also designed to get students excited about math at a time in their lives when many may begin to lose interest in the discipline.

Holston Middle School guidance counselor Heather Ramey agrees that middle school is a pivotal time to catch kids who are interested in math and science, adding that the more fun kids have, the more interested they will be.

“It’s a great way for our advanced students to get to do something fun,” said Ramey. “They don’t have a lot of opportunities to do that since the rules are so strict with where they can go, so it’s just a great reward for them. And the math thing is so important. We emphasize that because that’s going to come in so handy in their future and we need more people who know how to do math and science.”

Educators across the country are pushing to get students’ attention in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) disciplines. As U.S. colleges and universities graduate fewer and fewer STEM majors, educators and industry leaders alike are encouraging students to explore these career fields early in hopes of keeping the country competitive in the global marketplace.

Wayne Stevenson, the director of ORAU’s Science Education Programs, explained that competitions like the Math Bowl help fuel interest in what will be a critical skill set for America’s future work force.

“The Middle School Math Bowl is a way for students who are talented in math and other technical areas to get together with other students who are among the best and the brightest we’ve got in those areas and compete,” Stevenson said. “The competition is fun, the preparation for the competition is a way for them to hone their skills and learn more skills and deeper skills in mathematics. But I think what’s even more important is the visibility that it brings to mathematics and the importance of mathematics. It raises the bar for all of their classmates as well as for other students. And I think if we have more students striving to do well that we’ll do better as a nation.”

To view a complete list of winners, please visit the Middle School Math Bowl Contest Information page on the Pellissippi State Web site.

ORAU provides innovative scientific and technical solutions to advance national priorities in science, education, security and health. Through specialized teams of experts, unique laboratory capabilities and access to a consortium of more than 100 major Ph.D.-granting institutions, ORAU works with federal, state, local and commercial customers to advance national priorities and serve the public interest. A 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation and federal contractor, ORAU manages the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE) for the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE).

Bill Riley

Jefferson Middle School 8th grader Jack Li (far right) spends a few light moments with friends at Zuma Fun Center following their participation in the 2007 Middle School Math Bowl.
High-resolution version of photo

Audio Clips

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Jack Li

Jonathan Lamb

Heather Raney

Wayne Stevenson

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