Star Search: Academic Contests Offer Students a Reason to Shine

Contests can prompt pupils - including girls - to push for their best

For Jackie Ou, today is a foot-tapping, lip-chewing day. Seated with her teammates in the auditorium of Walsh Middle School here, every inch of Jackie's 4-foot, 5-inch frame is focused on solving problems like, ''What is the product of all the positive integer divisors of 12?''

Jackie scribbles frantically on her scrap paper - throwing her head back in disgust if she miscalculates. She thrives on the clapping and cheers that ring out from the attentive audience when she nails a tough question. Jackie knows that winning today is her ticket to seventh-grade stardom.

It's Round 2 of the national Mathcounts competition, and 96 middle school students have bused in from across Massachusetts to spend their Saturday pondering Pythagoras, pi, and prime numbers. Here, the field will be winnowed to four candidates who will go on to Washington to match wits with teams from across the country and compete for recognition, scholarships, and prizes, and a handshake with President Clinton.

Mathcounts was dreamed up 13 years ago by engineers who saw a dwindling pool of qualified candidates for their profession. If they could spark interest in math early on, they reasoned, perhaps they could keep youngsters focused on math through college, when the number of students interested in the discipline typically drops off dramatically.

In the past two decades, academic contests in all fields have emerged to pique students' interest, grant deserved recognition, and foster the qualities that athletic competition has long emphasized: teamwork, a quest for excellence, and the valuable lessons of winning and losing. No longer limited to debating duels, students from middle school to college today compete in subjects from chemistry to creative writing.

''There are so many things that emphasize the nonacademic,'' says Carol Frindell, a member of the question-writing committee who has been involved in Mathcounts since it began. ''This is a chance for kids who are smart to shine.''

But some parents, educators, and researchers specializing in how children learn - particularly girls - question whether competition aids student learning or inhibits it.

''At [the state] level, it looks like the kids are having fun, but by the time you get to the national level, it gets more cutthroat. That's the part I don't like,'' Ms. Frindell says.

Girls may be the ones most excluded by the competitive atmosphere. In general, girls thrive in collaborative atmospheres but are more uncomfortable in competitive ones, says Nancy Ransom, director of Vanderbilt University's Margaret Cunninggim Women's Center. Her general perception is that boys win more spelling bees and math and science competitions because they are better groomed for that kind of onstage performance. ''But,'' she says, ''there will always be some girls who excel and some boys who are terrible.''

At Mathcounts, the number of girls participating in the first round of competition is roughly equal to the number of boys, says a spokeswoman. An estimated 40 percent of participants at the state level are female, while at the national level, female participants drop to 30 percent, she says.

Bill Christ, headmaster at Hathaway Brown School, a girls' school in Cleveland, believes that competition is an important part of the learning process for all students - including girls.

''Contests can be a means for bringing out excellence, for encouraging students to do things they didn't know they could do,'' says Mr. Christ. In recent years, Hathaway Brown has made a concerted effort to involve as many students as possible in academic contests. ''The very act of being engaged with other competitors, the very synergy of that ... summons up the best of everybody.''

Christ says that he has seen girls' strength in collaboration be the key to winning in team competitions. A Hathaway Brown team won a science, math, and engineering competition last year - the first time that an all-girls team had won the contest.

What set their team apart was approach: While other teams took one question at a time, pooling their knowledge and then going on to the next problem, the girls' team took a moment to divide the questions according to each team member's talents.

''Historically, it has been thought that girls just can't compete as effectively,'' he says. ''That's simply not true.''

At the end of day at the Mathcounts competition, Jackie Ou placed fifth overall - meaning she was one position shy of making the team (all boys) that goes on to Washington in May.

But she says it doesn't matter that she didn't win. She enjoyed the math, and she says she'll try again next year. ''I don't mind,'' she says, cracking a timid smile, ''because I had fun.''

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