Lifestyle

Middle school mathlete racks up trophies in Federal Way

Lakota Middle School seventh-grader Grant Hall and the trophies he earned in math competitions. - Neal McNamara, The Mirror
Lakota Middle School seventh-grader Grant Hall and the trophies he earned in math competitions.
— image credit: Neal McNamara, The Mirror

Lakota Middle School seventh-grader Grant Hall has seven trophies, each a testament to his athleticism.

Although Hall is a soccer player, his trophies were awarded not for physical feats, but mental ones. He won them by facing off against his peers in math competitions.

Hall will try to add another trophy to his collection on Saturday. He and his math-inclined peers in grades 5 to 8 from around the Federal Way School District will gather at Thomas Jefferson High School for the fourth annual Federal Way Math Contest.

The competition is 10 rounds where four questions must be answered in four minutes. Then, there’s an individual test with 40 questions to be answered in an hour, and a team test with 20 questions to be answered in a half-hour. Of course, no calculators are allowed.

The Thomas Jefferson competition is just one of many open to math competitors. Hall listed a variety of events he’s competed in: state championships in Spokane, the Math is Cool competition at Highline Community College, and several others in Federal Way schools. There’s even a state Student Math Association, which has the goal of promoting math clubs for enjoyment.

Hall and his Lakota teammates practice at least twice per week, sometimes on weekends. They take tests, then go back and figure out what they got wrong and why. Sometimes, the Thomas Jefferson team will come by and help out.

Grant’s father, Erik, credits his son’s success partly to a teacher he had at Green Gables Elementary. Dana Davenport — a third-, fourth- and fifth-grade teacher — told the Halls that their son had a knack for math, so the talent was nurtured. Grant joined the Green Gables math team and started competing.

“It’s neat to see that there are these things for these types of kids,” Erik Hall said.

“The only thing I can do is help him break down the questions — 90 percent of the time he’ll just say, ‘Yup, I’ve got it,’” he said of helping his son with homework.

Davenport founded the Green Gables math team, which she says attracts between 12 and 20 students per school year. She says the team has attracted students like Grant who excel at math, but also average math students who are looking to sharpen their skills.

But isn’t it hard getting students interested in a subject that is often so feared? Davenport said it’s a personal goal to get her students to not only understand math, but to enjoy it. She said that math is “extremely popular,” and even if some students on the math team struggle with the concepts, they develop a camaraderie with their teammates that helps them in class.

“The sense of belonging carries over into everyday math,” she said.

At one point, Grant gave an example of a math problem he might have to do on Saturday: figuring out the probability of picking a certain color marble from a bag with a variety of differently colored marbles.

“You work backward,” he said, explaining how he would find the solution. “You see how it ended. Then you figure out the worst case scenario and the best case scenario.”

A probability question might whiff by some adults, but Hall was confident in his explanation. Based on the number of trophies he’s racked up, he has good reason to be. Davenport called him a math “rock star.”

“It makes you think,” he said of the competitions. “And it’s fun when you get stuff right.”

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