Doing the math


Staff writer

Differential equations, statistics, algebra, calculus, number theory, geometry. Would you like a side of eggs with all that?

While you are enjoying Saturday with a cup of coffee, the Thomas Jefferson High School math team is defending its state title against about 30 other schools.

Tom Norris, the team's advisor, thinks TJ's prospects are good. If history is any indicator, putting money on the team winning the title again would be a good investment.

Jefferson has lost the state title only once in 11 years. And last summer in Alabama, at the national Mu Alpha Theta competition, the team came in fourth.

With more than 100 members, the team's depth is its strength, according to Norris. While other teams might be better at math, they just don't have enough members to cover all the areas and keep Jefferson from winning.

Zach Bunting is the captain of the team. The tall, dark-haired and quiet senior wins math competitions. Frequently. Norris jokes Bunting's parents have a separate house to hold the trophies their son has won. An exaggeration, but not a large one.

He took second in number theory, 13th in ciphering and third in the individual category for the Mu section of the national competition.

With a 3.95 grade point average, Bunting sent his college applications to the rarified air of a few elite universities: Cal Tech, the U.S. Naval Academy and West Point. He was accepted by all three.

Although he hasn't settled on a major, it will involve math. He and his parents have known since he was a first-grader that numbers were his thing. Getting all 800 points on the math portion of the SAT confirmed it.

As an eighth-grader, Bunting joined the math team along with other junior high math heroes. Among that group was Young Lee, another senior who complements Bunting's personality.

While Bunting enjoys number theory and speed math, Lee uses his math abilities and outgoing nature for the "chalk talk," a competition where Lee explains a math problem and how to solve it using a creative lesson.

"I think it's cooler than doing regular math," Lee explained, adding it allows him to tap his creative energies.

He has applied to Columbia, partly because some of his family members live nearby. Also, it is some place he hasn't lived, he said.

Students join the Jefferson math club because they want a challenge outside of their classes, Norris said.

Lee also likes the diversity of the math team. They aren't just the academically gifted kids. Athletes, drama students, rockers and geeks sit next to each other in the two classrooms, working on practice tests. After they finish, they break into small groups and help each other through difficult problems.

As the advisor, Norris enjoys the challenge and pushing the team to win, he said. A former basketball coach, he believes competition –– whether shooting three-pointers or correctly answering calculus problems –– brings out the best in students.

"We work harder than all the others," Norris said he said of his math charges. He just wishes academic teams would get as much attention from the public as sports teams.

"Unfortunately, society bends in that direction (sports) a little too much," he said.

The competitions don't end Saturday. The team is taking donations for the national Mu Alpha Theta competition in Honolulu in August. Lee and Bunting will most likely be there to team up one more time.

Staff writer Mike Halliday: 925-5565,

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