We got a physics major!

By Billie Johnson

One of the geekiest photos of me appears in the 1987 Hawthorne Junior High year book. I remember lining up in the gym for the MATHCOUNTS team picture with two other girls and a lone boy. I loved math so much that I was thrilled to be front and center, and I almost edged them right out of the club shot. I look like a dim-witted offensive lineman rather than a brainy mathlete.

The MATHCOUNTS club I once belonged to has evolved over its 30 years to become the MATHCOUNTS Foundation. From www.mathcounts.org, it “strives to engage middle school students of all ability and interest levels in fun, challenging math programs, in order to expand their academic and professional opportunities.”  Schools throughout southeast Idaho have participated in the program since its inception.

Fourteen years ago, a local engineer who was the Southeast Idaho Regional MATHCOUNTS Coordinator visited the Pocatello Community Charter School (PCCS) to tell them about the club. At the time, the school was in its second year and a good friend was the principal. After meeting with him, she called me to talk about the “nicest, geekiest engineer” who came by to encourage the school to start a math club. I wasn’t sure if she was holding the word “geek” in quite the same high regard I do, but I listened.

The principal bemoaned her own middle school math struggles, and proceeded to poke fun at what kids might do in a math club. She noticed my stream of silence, and after her foot was firmly lodged between her gums, she stopped mid-sentence.

“You were in this club, weren’t you?” Her tone shifted from slight mockery to fearful remorse, and then without hesitation, hope. “Hey, do you want to coach our math club?” Seems like everyone likes to make fun of the math geeks right up until you need help with your computer, your kid’s homework or your school’s math club.

I coached the MATHCOUNTS team at PCCS for 12 years, and I’ve kept in touch with a number of my mathletes through Facebook or their parents. (I have a strict personal policy of no Facebook friends under 18, so it’s usually during their senior year or after they’ve begun college when mathletes connect with me on social media.) I’ve loved hearing stories of kids attending MIT, majoring in mechanical engineering, and becoming math teachers.

On Thanksgiving Day a couple weeks ago, I received the following message via Facebook from a former mathlete:

I just wanted to let you know that I’m still so thankful for MATHCOUNTS and grateful to you for everything you did to keep me from burning out on math in middle school. I’m getting close to declaring a major in physics and I’m not sure if I would love math enough to want to do it for the rest of my life without the great experience I had in MATHCOUNTS. Hope you’re having a great thanksgiving!

Holy Cow! I was so touched by her words, but I immediately felt guilty that I might be the only recipient of her note. What’s a holiday without a healthy helping of gratitude and a side of guilt?

I had the best of all worlds as a MATHCOUNTS coach. I worked as an engineer and got to spend one or two evenings a week with kids. I got to deal with dedicated students who were easily excited about math like I was, and they wanted to be there. I didn’t have to deal with bossy parents because I was a volunteer, and many of them were just grateful that someone else wanted to talk puzzles and permutations with their teen.

This young woman had wonderful math and science teachers throughout her tenure as a student in Pocatello. I got the chance to be the fun influence without any other obligations concerning her education. Her parents made sure she got to participate in the math and engineering activities she wanted to, and many engineers and other STEM professionals have worked behind the scenes for years to ensure that the MATHCOUNTS program is available for students throughout Idaho.  I want to share these words with all who have worked to ignite an excitement for STEM in students and add, Wahoo! We got a physics major!

Our passion is appreciated and it’s paying off.

This year’s Southeast Idaho Regional MATHCOUNTS competition will be on February 7th at Idaho State University, and 11 teams are currently registered. Any middle schools interested in entering a team or individuals may contact Krystal Chanda at Chanda@ae-eng.com or 208-233-4226. Home school students are also welcome and encouraged to participate.

Billie Johnson of Pocatello holds a bachelor’s degree in engineering and a master’s degree from Idaho State University. She works as an engineer, is an avid community volunteer, and maintains a blog about her adventures in a cow suit at www.CowSuitSaturday.com.