Mathletes on the rise at Pinole Middle School


Those who think it’s nearly impossible to get young people excited about math have never been in this Pinole Middle School classroom, where about a dozen students are embroiled in an intense game of 24.

The game challenges “mathletes” to find a way to make four numbers on a game card amount to 24, which can be done by adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing. While these students don’t need to pump iron to excel in this sport, the fierce concentration on a mathlete’s face as he or she attempts to cleverly calculate the four numbers indicates a strengthening of one body part often compared to a muscle: the brain.

“Take your time, don’t doubt yourself,” says their coach, Tongji Li, to one struggling mathlete. “You got it right. You got this.”

Li, a development program engineer at the Chevron Richmond Technology Center, started the Pinole Middle School Math Club as a way to nurture a love of math among young people and to provide a fun outlet for youth who are gifted in the subject.

Chevron Richmond immediately threw its support behind Li’s effort, since her club lines up with the company’s mission to help students prepare for careers in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math), skills that are needed for success in college and the rapidly changing economy. Chevron is working with school district officials to expand the program to other sites in Richmond and West County.

Li cites her support from her mom and math coursework at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as serving as an important source of inspiration for the idea that led to her forming the club.

stuff.6-9“When I was in school, my mom coached me on my math skills and helped me prepare for these same competitions. It was great practice and it set me up for my career as an engineer,” said Li. “Now as a working professional, I want to give back by coaching young students to apply the math skills they learn in class better, faster and more strategically.”

Some argue that young Americans simply don’t like math, but Li says the problem is young people are not offered nor exposed to fun and interactive activities involving the subjects. Math Club takes an innovative approach to making math fun and teaching it in a way that allows students to learn and thrive in different ways.

Li provided proof on a recent afternoon after the bell rang at Pinole Middle School, when about a dozen mathletes gathered in one of the school’s computer rooms and promptly began setting up games. They planned to play an hour of 24 followed by another hour of MathCounts. The games are to prep for three major national competitions: MathCounts, Math24 Challenge and AMC 8, Li said.

Amy Robinson, a math teacher at the school who monitors math club practices, says she loves seeing the kids “voluntarily doing extra math.”

“Seeing them all be excited about math is pretty neat,” Robinson said. “Then there’s the social aspect and competition.”

The best part: With all of this practice, even the most gifted mathletes in the club are showing leaps of improvement, Li said.

After two-and-a-half months working with students on MathCounts, individual student scores in the game improved by 100-percent, while team scores improved by 223-percent, according to figured provided by Li.

Li and her assistant coach, Nate Quan, have taught crash courses in fractions/decimals, algebra, factorization, probability and other math tools to prepare for the AMCs, a timed multiple choice exam in middle school mathematics designed to enhance problem solving skills. Following the crash courses, club members scored on average 30-percent better than the national average, Li said.

Li has this to say to supporter of the club, “Sir Isaac Newton once said ‘If I’ve seen further than others, it is only by standing upon the shoulders of giants’, I believe that assistant coach Nate and all of our sponsors and supporters have been granted the honor to have been the giants that helped these students see further, and to understand and tap their potential to the fullest.”

The Pinole Middle Math Club is continuing to work on their math skills with the intention of registering students for the AMC 8 competition in November.