MISSOULA - Sure, spelling bees are in.
But math competitions?
Well, Bev Young, a math mom and U.S. Forest Service engineer who has been helping coordinate the Western Montana Math Counts competition for years, would like to see mathletes get their due.
"Everybody understands that Scripps Howard sponsors the (National) Spelling Bee and they promote it like crazy, so it's really well known," Young said during a break from moderating Tuesday's Math Counts competition at the University Center. "Well, this is just as cool, we just don't get as much press."
Hamilton Middle School math teacher and mathlete coach John Stromberg agreed.
At his school, where students brought home a second-place trophy a couple of years ago, Stromberg tries to get kids interested in the competitive side of math.
The trophy helps raise the profile of mathletes, he said.
"Kids walk by that trophy case and then question us about it," Stromberg added.
In or out of the limelight, four Ravalli County schools - Darby, Hamilton, Corvallis and Victor - turned out teams for this year's Math Counts.
At stake were three team spots for state Math Counts and two individual spots to state for students who are not already qualified as competing for a school's top team.
The competition breaks down into two individual rounds and one team round.
Though Corvallis had the best team showing at fourth place, eighth-place finisher Hamilton will be the only Bitterroot Valley middle school with a student to cheer when the state competition gets underway on March 9 in Bozeman.
That student, eighth-grader Beth Bitterman, put up a finish - eighth overall - that was little surprise to Hamilton coach Bert Mahon.
"She's always been a really good student," Mahon said.
But Bitterman said she was stunned to learn she had qualified, even though she said as the first round began to take shape, she started to feel good about her performance. "During the individual test, after the first few pages, I felt pretty confident that I was getting most of them," Bitterman said.
While the judges are scoring the event, coaches, parents and curious onlookers are invited to watch what is known as the countdown round, a timed round that pits students against the clock (45 seconds per question) and each other.
Joel Haas, a Corvallis sixth-grader, got himself into a round final by buzzing in first with a correct answer. Unfortunately, Haas said it was downhill from there.
"The first two (questions) I understood, but the other ones I was like, ‘What?' " Haas said.
Haas said he credits his older brother with helping him get ahead of the curve in math.
"It's fun to do math because my brother helped me start and get ahead of my grade level," Haas said.
Vibha Rao, a seventh-grader at Hamilton Middle School, said she also had an affinity for math.
"It's always been my favorite subject," she said.
Troy Monroe of Florence, who coordinated the event, said if he had his way it would stay that way for students like Rao.
Though he took over the coordinator's role from Young, Monroe said Math Counts was putting on a concerted effort to keep the moderator a woman like Young, who works in a math-heavy profession.
"We try to get a lot of female engineering presence because you have a lot of female students in there now, but once they get to college the history has been that they often find other interests," said Monroe, who is a senior engineer with Morrison-Maierle Engineering in Missoula. "So we really try show them some good female role models."
Reporter Sepp Jannotta can be reached at 363-3300 or email@example.com.