Poker for pretzel sticks.
That’s just one of the ways Drake Thomas and his Kenai Middle School MathCounts team learned probability.
Something must have clicked.
The team from KMS, comprised of Ean Atchley, David Beck, Mikaela Salzetti and Thomas took first place at the statewide MathCounts Finals on March 31 in Anchorage. Thomas placed first in the individual category, which will send him to the national competition at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fla. May 10-13. He will be among 224 participants from all 50 states.
MathCounts is a national enrichment, club and competitive program to promote middle school mathematics achievement, according to its website.
But that’s just one side of the equation.
The other is Drake’s father, David Thomas, an engineer who designs clean-ups of contaminated soil and groundwater, coached the KMS team. His teaching style is simple — make it relative and use fun ways to illustrate his points.
“Things like playing poker for pretzel sticks and then calculating why three of a kind is rarer than two pair,” David said. “And throwing dice and picking M&Ms out of bags.”
Drake said his passion for math evolved through necessity.
“I’ve always been around math,” the 12-year-old said. “Because my family was good at it and math is always there in life. It’s not as though you can avoid it.”
Once he started to get it, he developed a work ethic to keep up with his enthusiasm.
“(Math) was around me during school and I liked it,” Drake said. “So I worked on it, so I got better so I liked it more, so I worked on it more.”
After adding hardware to the awards wall, Drake can’t wait to get to Florida.
“It feels great because I was looking at the awards for KMS on the awards wall, and they haven’t really won anything math-related,” he said. “So I felt glad to be the first person to do that and I’m glad to be representing Alaska.”
David said Drake has always been quick on the draw when it comes to picking up math concepts, and during the team’s training the two would go over a lesson David was planning for the next day.
“I learned a lot of math from him,” Drake said about his dad.
For David, having the first place team in the state was nice, but winning isn’t the most important part, he said.
“The things that excite me more are the bigger lessons I think they learn,” David said.
He recalled an instance where he gave each team member the chance to be a team captain, and let them work it out themselves after one member thought they should be captain over another.
“I had assigned the girl on the team to be team captain because of dynamics that I saw,” David said. “And then I thought, ‘Wait, I should step back and let them figure it out.’”
After each member had a turn to be captain, he asked the boy what he thought. “The boy said, ‘Yeah, she’s better at this. She can keep doing the math and listen to other people and get the answer she filled out. And I got too focused, I wasn’t good at that,’” David said.
Just like an athletic team, communication and teamwork are key when competing in a math event, David said.
“Sports is great at teaching teamwork — I think this might be even better,” David said. “Certainly for intellectual creative teamwork because it’s very much the task at hand to get the right answer quickly, efficiently, accurately and people bring different strengths to that.”
To Drake, success is in teamwork.
“We would set up strategies so that if we got a certain amount of problems we’d just divide up the work,” Drake said. “And we already have set up the work and divided it up beforehand so we don’t have to discuss, we just take our copy of the test and work on our designated problems.
“If someone needed help on a problem, we’d jump to a problem and work it out and we did really well as a team.”
The competition had individual and team rounds. In the individual part, there was a “sprint” round consisting of 30 problems to be solved in 40 minutes, or about 80 seconds per question.
One of the questions read like this: How many ways are there to distribute six different presents to five children so each child gets at least one present?
Take a minute and try to work it out. In case the solution didn’t come to mind, the answer is 1,800. Now imagine solving 29 more of those types of problems in the allotted time. That’s what the round consisted of.
Drake sees math in ways that many people do not, and that’s what allows him to be successful.
“Probably my favorite thing about math is that there’s always more than one way to do something,” he said. “You can either take the brute force route and try to solve it and just plug along and try all the combinations with it.
“And sometimes that’s impossible. Other times it just takes a really long time and you can search for insight or you can start doing it — you can start doing it without any real way to see the quick way to do this. And maybe it’ll happen upon you if you see a pattern.”
Being in Orlando will have its perks. There’s one in particular he’s looking forward to — aside from the competition.
“Going to Harry Potter World,” Drake said.