Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Knights of Pi 2015

Last Saturday I once again found myself at Newport High School in Bellevue for the Knights of Pi Math Competition. This year I brought one team mostly of fourth graders of which half the kids were at a math competition for the very first time. So I was nervous about how they perceived the whole process. I knew they probably weren't going to win any awards I didn't want this to be discouraging.  From the start I didn't recruit this one very heavily and I messaged that it was going to be mostly about the experience for the kids. I gave a quick talk before the awards ceremony to frame things that we were unlikely to win and to emphasize what we came for which was the experience. I think we were one of the few groups of fourth graders there on top of everything else which gave me an easy explanation.  I feel this tension even when we happen to place because not all the kids do equally well.  Its obviously most important to encourage continuing to work/explore math rather than focusing on winning an elementary math contest.  Its also really hard sometimes to be convincing even though its completely true.

Based on interviews with kids along the way, I think everyone had a good time. One of my favorite moments was watching the whole team playing board games together after finishing and prior to the awards ceremony. I think they really gelled together. I also had a funny conversation about what's an x and y intercept with the kids on the way home in the car. (Try talking about a graph while driving and having the kids just imagine it in their heads) I unfortunately, just barely made it to the High School in time due to some unexpected traffic delays. So I didn't remind the kids to keep their question sheets. As a result, I have a pile of answer sheets with no questions and I won't be able to analyze anything for a while. If the last years are any guide, the questions tend to be vocabulary heavy and above grade level with not enough time to work through them for most kids.  The most laughable one I had my son try on the practice test was

"What is the name of the 3‐D figure obtained by taking the convex hull of the centers of the faces on a cube?"

That's actually not very hard if you're a nine year old that happen to know what a convex hull is and the names of the various polyhedrons. But as I told him, just skip the ones that you don't understand the vocabulary for and don't worry about it.

The bad traffic actually cost me one team member who was unable to make it to  the Eastside in time. On the bright side I originally had one alternate member whom I had been feeling bad about not being able to try all the events that was able to participate in our team instead.

Finally, I once again spent a moment wondering about my kids versus the ones in the winning teams. I don't spend much time practicing for this competition. We did one practice relay type event and  I encouraged the participants to try out the sample questions at home.  This is mostly because I don't think the format is mathematically very interesting. The vocabulary and knowledge will come anyway in a few years or remain irrelevant . Likewise, the speed computation is more of a novelty than anything else versus the problem solving I am interested in. In my heart, I think if I and the kids were motivated to drill some of the particular types of questions for the entire Fall we could do a lot better. I also think that would be dreadfully dull and not in anyone's best interests in the long run.  What I hope is that I can observe measurable growth over time. Especially for the kids who I will see for 2 years. That's ambitious for a club that meets once a week for 50 minutes.



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