More than 30 students filed into a computer lab at Jamestown High School on Friday, taking up every available desktop computer and several laptops.
All of them had permission to miss their normal fourth period class to participate in a virtual math competition.
Jamestown’s Interstellar Math Team was formed three years ago as one of the original members of a nationwide league of the same name that has the goal of bringing the kind of enthusiasm seen in competitive sports teams to math.
Interstellar now has hundreds of participating schools spanning from coast to coast.
Math teacher Patricia Ridley was intrigued by the idea of combining competition and cooperation to engage and challenge her students. With the help of the ongoing sponsorship from the school’s PTSA, Ridley put together a club that consisted of 12 members its first year.
Three years later, the club has more than 50 active members, most of whom are 11th- or 12th-graders and currently ranks 30th in the nation.
Jamestown is the only school in Williamsburg-James City County Schools or York County School Division to participate in the Interstellar league, with the closest other participating school located in Charlottesville.
During the season the team meets once a week during the school day to take a challenging math test in the computer lab through Interstellar’s web application. The questions are both multiple choice and open entry, and draw from a variety of mathematical disciplines including geometry, algebra, probability and math theory.
Most weeks the team is competing live with another team somewhere else in the country with whom it has been randomly paired. Individual members earn points for their team, and the team with the higher point total wins the match.
Over the four-week regular season, teams from around the country are matched up and ranked against one another. Different divisions in the league base their rankings on the top five, 10, 15 or 20 scorers on each team.
After four weeks each division puts out its own March Madness-style elimination bracket for postseason play. Last year, Jamestown competed in the large team bracket and made it to the Elite Eight– an accomplishment this year’s team is eager to duplicate and surpass.
“Some schools limit their participants so their teams are smaller and they only let the top scorers compete,” Ridley explained of the variations in team size and need for different competitive divisions. “We allow anyone to participate who would like to at JHS, so we have a much larger team than a lot of the schools we compete against.”
As for why there is so much interest in being on the team at Jamestown, Ridley thinks there are several factors.
“It’s great to have such a supportive staff and administration. Because we compete during the school day the kids’ teachers have to be okay with letting them miss class for this,” Ridley said.
Also at play is the math department’s enthusiasm for both the subject they teach and challenging their students. Many teachers support the Interstellar Math Team’s efforts by working competition-quality bonus questions into their everyday lessons for a bit of additional practice.
“[The students] like to see how they can take what they’ve learned in their classes and pull from it to answer these types of questions,” Ridley said. “It’s amazing how enthusiastic the students and teachers are about the subject.”
The students’ excitement was obvious as they wrapped up Friday’s match, having pulled off a victory over the Academy for Allied Health Science in New Jersey 31-26. Their performance bumped the team’s ranking to 30th in the country based on their top 20 players.
It was also clear, both from the exuberant atmosphere and the size of the club, there is no stigma attached to being so heavily invested in an academic competition.
“Math is fun,” said Noah Scrugges, a senior who has stuck with the team since its first year. “I like being a dork.”
His fellow founding team member Amanda Herman was quick to add that as a girl, she has no qualms about pursuing an interest related to STEM, which stands for science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
“I’m better than most of the boys anyway,” Herman said.
Though the competitive spirit among this group of students is evident, Ridley thinks the cooperation aspect is equally important.
“They are able to take a risk, because they know that if one person has a bad day the team is going to be a support system,” Ridley said. “You can be wrong, and it’s going to be OK because the team is behind you.”