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Math Masters of Minnesota: Sixth-graders compete at Worthington Middle School

The Worthington Middle School Math Masters team is comprised of, front (from left): Veronica Orellana, Mike Martinez, Judy Keophimphone, Aryah Marsh, (middle, from left), Taylor Eggers, Lucrecia Ramos, Tad Stewart, Allyson Johnson, Anna Meyer, Sam Van Westen, (third row, from left), Chris Lopez, Brandon Gutierrez, Christipher Lee, Davis Moore and Sean Souksavath, Missing is Anwar Farra (alternate

WORTHINGTON - On a gray, wet, dreary Saturday morning, 56 sixth-graders huddled around tables in the windowless Worthington Middle School (WMS) cafeteria, flexing their math muscles as they participated in the regional Math Masters competition.

"Rev your engines up right now!" encouraged WMS sixth-grade teacher Rich Besel, who coordinated the event with Prairie Elementary fourth-grade teacher Rich Liapis. "1, 2, 3, 4 -- go math!"

Go math, indeed. Students from WMS, Sleepy Eye, Windom, Springfield and Murray County Central enthusiastically engaged in dozens of math problems, some executed individually and some in teams of five, from 9 a.m. to noon.

Locally, Besel and Liapis prepared the 16 WMS sixth-graders selected for the event with twice-weekly after school practices over the past three weeks.

"Math Masters employs math skills and principles, and it's a balance of three areas -- order of operations, working individually toward problem solving and working as a team and sharing your skills," explained Besel, who has coordinated the Math Masters event in Worthington for more than 23 years.

"It's quite interesting to watch the kids, noticing that some work best independently, some are more of the spark plug though not the work horse, others are the anchor, steady as a rock," Besel said.

Besel is a vigorous advocate for math education, and for inciting an excitement about mathematics in all the students he encounters.

"When I came to Worthington from Iowa in '85, I had done a math bee, similar to a spelling bee, and thought it was a great opportunity for kids to show off some of their academics rather than just athletic skills," Besel recounted. "Then Math Masters came out of Austin, Minn., and we got started with that.

"Toward the beginning, it was more about generating excitement and involvement for girls in mathematics, and I think it has made a difference," he continued. "Today, there's not even a question whether girls belong here or not."

A mix of boys and girls of various sizes and ethnicities all wore their white and red Math Masters T-shirts as they navigated through timed math exercises, including more than 30 individual problems and 75 order-of-operation problems.

"They need to know their rules," Besel said. "What I would love to see here is if they hooked up all these kids to little conduits of electricity, I wonder how many light bulbs we could illuminate.

"The energy is just powerful in here, but yet it's so quiet."

A steady murmur of young voices could be heard as the teams worked on group problems, and the atmosphere in the WMS cafeteria was like a study hall, with an occasional "shush" heard. Cans of Mountain Dew, the traditional Math Masters beverage, rested near students' elbows.

The 11- and 12-year-olds worked their calculators and pencils with as much focus as many adolescents apply to their cell phones or video games, and the intensity was nearly palpable as Besel announced, "Two minutes remaining," toward the end of a group round.

"All of our problems each year come from St. Cloud State University mathematicians, and it's a challenge to keep the rigor tough, but not too tough, for both fifth- and sixth-graders," Besel said. The fifth-grade Math Masters competition will take place in May.

Shortly after the awards ceremony took place around noon, the happy and relieved WMS sixth-graders cheerfully posed for a photo and celebrated that Worthington #1 finished third in the team competition and WMS classmate Sean Souksavath received a ribbon in the individual round.

"This was a good use of our time," agreed Mike Martinez. "It was fun being here with friends, and some of the questions were tough, but we always tried our hardest."

"I liked the snacks," giggled Judy Keophimphone, mentioning the Mountain Dew and Oreos served to the kids at mid-morning.

"Well, it made me get up on Saturday before 1 p.m.," mused Sam Van Westen of his math-centered morning, while first-time Math Masters participant Brandon Gutierrez beamed, "I liked everything about it."

Comments like that are music to the ears of Besel and Liapis, who are striving to instill math confidence in their students.

"We try to encourage the kids, and ask them, 'Did you do your best? Hey, then you have to feel good about it,'" Besel said. "Even if they don't get a trophy or a ribbon, we want them to feel like they had a good time, maybe met a kid from another town, and our job as coaches is to encourage them.

"We tell them, 'You did something great today, if you learned at least one thing you can take on and move forward with,'" Besel added.

Sixth grade Math Masters Results, March 9 WMS Competition

Team Placement

1, Murray County Central Purple

2, Murray County Central Silver

3, Worthington 1

4, Windom Blue

5, Murray County Central Black

6, Worthington 3

7, Springfield

8, Worthington 2

9, Sleepy Eye Elementary

10, Windom Gold

11, Windom Cobras

12, Windom Eagles

Fact Drill Placement

1, Cameron Cresko, MCC

2, Jack Pierson, MCC

3, Cameron Boerboom, MCC

4, Kolton Wendorff, MCC

Ribbon recipients: Alyssa Boynton, MCC; Rachel Siedschlag, MCC; Connor Sweetman, MCC; Elijah Kirschtein, Springfield; Ashley Steenhoek, Windom; Hannah Rahn, Windom; Cole Ahlers, MCC.

Individual Placement

1, Jack Pierson, MCC

2, Cameron Kresko, MCC

3, Grant Tjeerdsma, MCC

4, Austin Majarius, Windom

5, Alyssa Boynton, MCC

6, Kolton Wendorff, MCC

7, Rachel Siedschlag, MCC

8, Sean Souksavath, Worthington

9, Megan Busman, MCC

10, Gilchrist Parent, Windom