When Math teacher Kathy Zolla held her first meeting of the Middle School Math Club this year, she couldn’t believe her eyes. Forty Middle School students filled the room, double the number she had in the club last year. That number is all the more remarkable when you learn that the club meets during Friday lunch, which means that a steady stream of students choose to leave their friends behind in the dining hall, proudly don T-shirts that say “Nerds Forever,” and devour pizza and cookies while solving tricky math challenges.

“At the first meeting, I was really clear with the students,” Zolla says. “I said, ‘If you don’t like doing really hard math problems, this is not for you.’”

Only two students dropped out.

Eighth grader Colin Boublik thinks he knows why. “She didn’t scare people enough,” he says, with a big grin. “She needs to scare them even more.”

At a recent club meeting, students dash from the dining hall into the Campus Center Sadler Conference Room carefully balancing trays loaded with food and drinks. While they eat, they dive into the “Warm-Up” problems that Zolla and Co-Club Sponsor Jason Koza hand out. Want to try a sample problem?

Min Zhang wrote down all of the two-digit multiples of 5. What is the probability that one of these numbers, chosen at random, has exactly two distinct primes that are factors? Express your answer as a common fraction(Keep reading for the answer.) 

Why join?

Students join the club for a variety of reasons. Boublik says he “loves math because there is definitely a right answer to a problem,” whereas his other coursework may involve more subjectivity.

Sixth grader Abby Colodny says she “likes to challenge herself in math.” Sometimes, she says,    her father borrows her math worksheets and tries them. “He does pretty well,” she admits.

Zolla knows that some younger Middle Schoolers participate in Math Club, which is evenly divided between boys and girls, to get a sense of the math challenges they will face in higher grades. Others are vying for the opportunity to compete at MATHCOUNTS, a national middle school coaching and competitive mathematics program that promotes mathematics achievement through a series of fun and engaging “bee” style contests. Last year, competing in the particularly tough Denver metro region, CA sent one student to the state competition. This year, Zolla is optimistic there will be more.

Still other students who join the club have no interest in competing. They just want to have fun trying hard problems.

The fun of Math Shirt Mondays

After the warm-up problems, students divide into groups for the “buzzer round.” Working together and against the clock, they tackle tougher problems, hoping to be the first to hit their buzzer—and have the right answer. Working on the floor, they create a sea of red T-shirts emblazoned with “Our Mathletes stay positive F (x) = | x |.”  Get it?

Zolla has also created “Math Shirt Monday,” when teachers and students wear their T-shirts. “It’s fun,” she says. “It’s like the athletes wearing a letter jacket. It says, ‘I’m a math nerd, and I love it.’”

Ultimately, Zolla stresses, the goal of the club is to have fun doing math. “There are plenty of schools where the end goal is to win,” she says. “We want to have fun, learn something in the process, but we don’t stress about winning.”

And the answer to that problem, in case you are wondering?  It’s 13 over 18.  Think you’re ready for Middle School Math Club?