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Local students compete in Math Bowls, PROBE exam
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Local students compete in Math Bowls, PROBE exam

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Across the state of Nebraska, high school students battled in a tournament of wits. The 32nd annual Nebraska Math Day was held on Dec. 2. For the second year in a row, it was held virtually.

The majority of Math Day is based around Math Bowls. Teams from 43 schools statewide, including Scottsbluff High School, Gering High School and Bluffs Middle School, participated in these competitions.

“It’s kind of some pressure and stress but it’s really fun ... and once you buzz in and get it right, it feels really good, especially when we’re playing against high schoolers and we’re middle schoolers,” Harrison Maser from Bluffs Middle School said.

He, alongside his twin brother Jacob Maser and fellow eighth-grader Landen Heine, were some of the only middle school students participating. A few weeks ago, they went to a math competition in Omaha and won first overall.

“It’s a lot of thrill,” Heine said. “Kind of like football games without pushing.”

The Math Bowls were divided into competitive and recreational contests. Each featured a list of 12 complex questions, which two teams vied to answer. They need to respond within 30 seconds. The margin of victory matters, as more points are awarded for blowouts than close matches.

The questions are exceedingly difficult. Examples include “What is the domain of the function h of x = the fifth root of x squared - 4 over 2x + 5” or “When 270 is divided by the odd number n, the quotient is a positive prime number and the remainder is 0. What is n?”

It is relatively common for neither team to get the right answer. Every team gets a minimum of five games in the tournament.

John Mentgen, Cade Horn and Riley Ibero serve as the Scottsbluff High School "A-Team," as team coach Shelby Aaberg called them. They’ve been honing their math skills for years.

“There are a lot of different types of problems, but they’re really recognizable once you know what to look for,” Mentgen said. “We’ll practice over and over until we get a good understanding of how to solve them.”

In previous years, the competitors would travel to Lincoln for the Math Bowls. This year, like in 2020, everything was conducted via Zoom. It wasn’t the same experience as an in-person tournament, Mentgen said. But he did like that the teams could brainstorm with each other out loud instead of whispering.

The Math Bowls weren’t the only aspect of Math Day. There was also the hour-long Problems Requiring Original Brilliant Effort, or PROBE I, exam. It’s a 25-question, multiple choice exam.

Four points are awarded for a correct answer, one for no answer, and zero for a wrong answer. The 50 kids statewide with the highest score will be selected to advance to the PROBE II written exam in Lincoln.

Of those 50, the top 10 will receive scholarships ranging from $2,000 to $8,000.

“The PROBE is always fun just to see what questions they throw on,” Gering High School junior Wyatt Soule said. “Normally, it’s crazy difficult, more than you’d ever expect.”

Around 45 students in Scottsbluff, and 13 in Gering, took the exam. Only a few participated in the Math Bowls, with their classmates cheering them on.

“We’re very thankful to be able to compete,” Gering coach Amanda Cochran said. “(...The students) are digging it and love competing.”

Gering’s two teams had six wins, two losses and two ties between them during the tournament.

Scottsbluff’s recreational teams went a combined 18-2, with three teams sweeping their contests and finishing first, second and third in the overall recreational standings.

Their competitive team placed either third or fourth overall, dependent on an official head-to-head ruling from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

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Christopher Borro is a reporter at the Star-Herald. He can be reached at email at christopher.borro@starherald.com.

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