WILKES-BARRE — Maybe it was the time his teacher climbed a tree to prove height can be calculated if you know distance from the object and angle to the top.
Somewhere along the line Danny Sales became a bit of a math geek, so much so he was one of 47 area students gathering early Friday to compete in the state Newton Math Competition.
Of course, the Coughlin High School senior now knows that the distance to the tree multiplied by the tangent of the angle of elevation gives a close estimate of tree height. It’s simple trigonometry. But when math teacher Sam Elias climbed that Kirby Park tree and dropped a tape measure to prove the math, trig was still a few years away for Sales.
“I was in ninth grade,” Sales said. “What did I know about angles?”
A lot more now than then, obviously. Sales and Meyers junior Miles Hammond, another competitor in the Newton event, excelled at the Luzerne County Council of Teachers of Math competition this year, winning full scholarships to Wilkes University, Elias said. No surprise then that they should be on teams representing their schools Friday.
The competition is done in two parts, Wilkes-Barre Area School District math coordinator Corinne Drost said: A two-hour individual test in the morning and a two-hour team test in the afternoon. The contest started as a relatively small regional event, said Mohamed Nouri, chairman of the Newton Foundation for the Advancement of Mathematics. It has grown to cover the mid-Atlantic area, with a second competition held in mid-March in the Washington, D.C., area.
The competition involves all pre-calculus questions, Nouri said, noting that the event’s namesake, Sir Isaac Newton, applied his genius to both classical mathematics and early differential calculus. “He was sort of in between them,” Nouri said.
Nouri praised public school teachers in the area for raising the bar in their classrooms. “When we first started this here, it was dominated by the private schools,” he said. “Now it’s the other way around. The private schools seem to be intimidated by the public schools.
The six high schools that sent teams Friday were Meyers, Coughlin, Hazleton Area, Wyoming Valley West, Berwick and Abington Heights.
Both Sales and Hammond competed last year, and said the trick is often in realizing that you know how to solve the problem. The problems can be written in a way that masks the solution. “Sometimes you might know the way to do it, but you have to figure that out first,” Sales said.
Want a sample? The first question on the morning test: “In an arithmetic sequence the first term is 2, the last term is 29 and the sum of all terms is 155. Find the common difference.”
Don’t ask us for the answer, we’re just the messenger, not the mathematician.