Making Math Fun

Talk to seniors Jeffrey Huang and Chris Fan long enough and one thing becomes perfectly clear:  they love math.
They have both been known to look up random math facts online, and to read math books just for fun. The co-leaders of the Severn Math Team particularly enjoy competition math, which relies heavily on problem-solving and critical thinking, in addition to general mathematic abilities. This year, they led Severn to another championship finish at the Anne Arundel Community College High School Math Competition. In addition to the impressive team win, Huang and Fan took 5th and 1st place honors, respectively, amongst all individual competitors.
But talk to Huang and Fan a little more, and it becomes evident that this major victory, while worthy of celebration, is not what they’re most excited about. As it turns out, their goals for the Math Team during their senior year had nothing to do with winning anything and everything to do with leaving a legacy. In short, they set out to make math cool.
“Yes, it was exciting to win, but we also knew we could do more,” said Huang, who is headed to Cornell University in the fall, where he plans to study computer science and linguistics. “Our focus has really been on the Math Team culture, and I’m proud of what we accomplished.” This included exponential growth of the club’s membership, triple the number of students signing up for the competition days, and the introduction of a Middle School competition – Points for Points -- that is helping to expand interest in competition math even further.

“There is often a fixed mindset, which is that math is really hard or difficult,” said Fan, who will be studying physics and mathematics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison come fall.  “But we enjoy it, and we want our classmates to also enjoy doing math and to know that it’s not about being in the highest math class.  The goal here wasn’t just to win, but also to make math more popular and accessible.”

They knew they wanted the club to be more inclusive, and recognized that in order to do so, they would need to change the narrative. “We needed people to realize that they could be in Algebra or Geometry and be a part of Math Team,” said Huang. “The message was that Math Club is for everyone.”

They also flipped the script, pointing out that the way to improve at competition math is by being exposed to it. “You won’t start out new and be the best person on the team, but competing is the way to become good at it,” said Fan. Their messaging stressed the fact that competition math differs from the standard academic curriculum and that it’s mostly about exposure to that style.

Together, they utilized the weekly Upper School Morning Meetings to – loudly, according to them – continually pitch the club to fellow students. They approached Math Team updates like a sports team, hyping up competition days just as the lacrosse, soccer and basketball teams would. At other times, they pulled from famous speeches to promote the club, once giving a Churchill-like “we shall never surrender” speech. Another speech pulled from the famous words of the Gettysburg Address.

Their high-energy approach worked. The sign-up list at the fall 2022 Club Fair was three pages long, front and back – a major improvement over the 20 members they boasted in the previous year. Younger students have started to join in higher numbers. A year ago, they could barely persuade enough people to come out to the competitions. This year, they were turning classmates away, as the interest became almost unmanageable. Using funds they requested through the Severn Partnership Program, they got t-shirts for all the members and also bought five math books, including one that they feel strongly is everything anyone needs to know about competition math. For their final AACC competition in March, they celebrated Senior Week with a Hawaiian theme and actually had spectators. “We had fans!” enthused Huang.

“In our junior year, we just wanted to get enough people together to try to win,” he added. “Now we are really future-focused. We started thinking about how to keep this going beyond us, and what traditions we can start that the next group of leaders can carry on.”

That future looks bright indeed, as three rising seniors have enthusiastically taken the reins from Huang and Fan. The departing co-leaders see great potential within the current membership, having demonstrated impressive problem-solving skills throughout the competition season. The Middle School Points for Points competition is on for the second year, with the current juniors stepping in to run it in partnership with the Middle School Math Department. And thanks largely to Huang’s outreach this spring, they have planted the seed for a new high school math league that would allow Math Teams around the county to expand the competition season well beyond the AACC 5-month season.

“I know not everyone is as crazy as us, but I still see a very promising future for the Math Team at Severn School,” said Fan. “After last year’s Middle School Points for Points competition, I heard students talking about the problems out in the hallway afterwards. It was really exciting to me that as they were leaving Price they were still engaged and talking to each other about it. I live for seeing that level of excitement around math!”

“That’s what you want,” added Huang. “You want students here to say that math is cool. That’s how you get them hooked.”

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Upper School