High schools primed for deciphering math challenges at New Kensington

American Math Competition and Math League foster critical thinking for local students
High school students

More than 100 local high school students from western Pennsylvania descended on Penn State New Kensington Feb. 15 for the annual American Math Competition. 

Credit: Bill Woodard

“Do not worry about your difficulties in Mathematics. I can assure you mine are still greater.” Albert Einstein (brainyquote.com)

NEW KENSINGTON, Pa. -- Archimedes’ spheres and cylinders and Pythagoras’ right triangles and hypotenuses were scrutinized and unraveled Feb. 15 by nearly 100 students from high schools in the western Pennsylvania region at the American Mathematics Competition at Penn State New Kensington.

A nationwide contest, the 25-question, 75-minute, multiple-choice examination in secondary school mathematics is the standard used to identify budding mathematic acumen. The students solved the problems using pre-calculus concepts.

"AMC is the nation's K-12 math education standard, and it serves to select the students with strong potentials in math,” said Xiang Ji, assistant professor of mathematics at the campus. “The knowledge required for the contest is limited, but almost none of the questions are the routine ones that students learn to solve in school. To attack these questions, one has to demonstrate strong aptitude in logical analysis and logical reasoning. One needs to develop some correct and effective methods within the time limit all by himself or herself."

Ji, along with Ge Mu, instructor in mathematics, organized the event and administered the test. Ji delivered the post-exam keynote address, a tradition of the contest.

"It is a great opportunity for extending students' view of mathematics,” Ji said. “We lead the students to explore some fields and topics of math that they have never touched before, or introduce some games or activities closely related with math.”

The topic of Ji’s talk was topology, which is the study of certain properties that do not change as geometric figures or spaces undergo continuous deformation, such as stretching and bending. Topology, developed in the early 1900s, is a version of geometry. It is considered a major branch of mathematics.

“I illustrated the idea by examples,” Ji said. “After classifying certain topological spaces in dimensions one and two, together with their interesting corollaries in the physical world, a list of results in topology were explained to the students.”

AMC 12 and AMC 10 are administered annually to more than 200,000 high school students to help identify the students with truly exceptional mathematics talent. The main purpose of the competitions is to spur interest in mathematics and to develop talent through solving challenging problems in a timed multiple-choice format. The AMC 10 is restricted to students in grades 10 and below, while the AMC 12 is open to all students through grade 12.

AMC 12 is one in a series of examinations, followed in the United States by the American Invitational Examination and the USA Mathematical Olympiad, that culminate in participation in the International Mathematical Olympiad, the most prestigious and difficult secondary mathematics examination in the world. Students who are among the very best receive indication of how they stand relative to other students in the country and around the globe.

WEDIG Math League Results

In addition to organizing national contests, Mu and Ji are the co-directors of the Mathematics League, an annual academic competition among the eight local high schools -- Apollo-Ridge, Armstrong, Burrell, Freeport, Kiski Area, Kiski School and Leechburg. Sponsored by the Westmoreland Economic and Development Initiative for Growth (WEDIG) and held on the New Kensington campus, the league puts the students' math skills to the test by giving them the opportunity to go head-to-head with each other.

The two-day competition, spread out over the fall and spring semesters, features three teams of students from each school answering mathematical questions. Students answer two sets of eight questions within the 30-minute limit for each set. The questions in algebra, geometry and other areas of mathematics are developed by Mu and Ji.

"The math league contest is an important service that Penn State New Kensington and WEDIG provides to the local school districts to promote STEM education,” Mu said. “This contest dates back to 1986 and it has persisted for 30 years. Several top students stand out from the contest since we took over this event in 2012. We would like to see more and more students showing their interests in mathematics."

David Wells, retired associate professor of mathematics, preceded Mu and Ji as director of the league. Wells also chaired the national AMC committee and co-edited two books on the AMC contests.

The final round was held Feb. 22 in the campus theatre, and duplicating the previous seven years, the Kiski School captured the championship. Like Burrell in wrestling with 11 consecutive WPIAL titles, Kiski is the dominant force in mathematics. Kiski boasts of being an eight-time defending champion.

The college preparatory boarding school in Saltsburg compiled 55 points to win by 16 points over its nearest rival, Kiski Area High School, which took second place with 39 points. Armstrong High School claimed the bronze medal with 32 points. Kiski secured its silver behind Kris Gong’s league best 19 points, and Tony Tong and Bobby Wu's 16. The trio swept the top three individual spots.

Kiski Area was the last school not named Kiski School to win the math crown. To put it into perspective, On Feb. 2, 2009, Barack Obama was in the 14th day of his first term as president of the United States. 

Mu and Ji

Mu holds a master of arts in mathematics degree from Penn State, where she taught for two years before arriving at the New Kensington campus. A native of China, Mu has written two books, “Being an Undergraduate in the U.S.” and “Comprehensive College Algebra: Building Mathematics Insights through Logic and Exercises.” The first book was written when she was an undergraduate and was based on her experiences at Louisiana State University. She was recognized for her publication at LSU’s commencement ceremony in 2008.

Ji, in his fourth year at the campus, earned his doctorate in mathematics from Penn State after securing a master’s degree in mathematics from Beijing University in China. He was a graduate teaching assistant at the University Park campus for four years. Ji’s research interests are differential geometry and mathematical physics. He wrote a book, “Comprehensive College Algebra: Building Mathematical Insights Through Logic and Exercises.”  Mu was the co-author.


Bill Woodard

Alumni and Public Relations Specialist

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