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Opinion: I've always had a passion for maths but was often unmotivated – until now

Transition Year student Hannah Leonard describes the inspiring experience of being a competitor in the MATHletes Challenge 2014.

Hannah Leonard

IN FEBRUARY OF this year, I became a competitor in the MATHletes Challenge 2014, a competition that saw over 3,000 students completing maths challenges online in order to gain mastery points, which in turn, would hopefully win them the competition for either themselves or their school. This was done through a website called Khan Academy, a remarkable online tool for education, which helps students worldwide to study and learn subjects like Maths, Physics, Finance and more.

At the time of the MATHletes challenge, I was in Third Year and so I had State exams approaching. My teacher told us to put exam study first, but to do our best with the competition. I soon figured out there wasn’t necessarily a division between the two.

What happens when you get stuck? 

I have always had a passion for maths, and have never scored below a B in any test, but when it came to studying maths, I often found myself unmotivated. Also, when I became stuck on a sum, I couldn’t figure out how to continue studying. I needed somebody to show me, but I, like many other students, don’t have the privilege of having somebody at home to help.

Khan Academy and MATHletes have solved both of these problems. When I began using Khan Academy , my motives were purely competitive. I wanted to win the MATHletes “monthly cup” for my school, but as time went on, I realised how helpful it was, how much I was improving, and how many more math topics I could study within a certain time.

I decided to use Khan Academy as a study aid. Yet, when using it, it never felt like a chore, I studied maths because I wanted to, not because I needed to. The format of the website made it feel like a game – a game I wanted to win. I could simply search what topic I wished to study, and within minutes, I would have a more thorough understanding of the topic and reassurance that I did know it well, and if I didn’t know it well , I could be shown, through simple written explanations or video tutorials. Khan academy and MATHletes gave me a newfound motivation for studying maths.

We began learning from each other

Our school then won the MATHletes February cup. It was a brilliant day. Our teachers were beaming with pride, and I discovered, so were we. We were proud of ourselves of course, but when looking back on that first month, we realised how much MATHletes had influenced our classroom. We began learning from each other. We were trying to outrace one another yet when somebody asked for help, they were answered, and for the first time the answer didn’t necessarily come from the teacher, but from students too. We realised it was a group effort to win the cup, and how proud we were of one another.

When it came to the MATHletes Provincial Final, Fingal CC brought 66 students, including me. The Provincial Finals consisted of three rounds; one speed round which used Khan Academy, one problem solving round (without a calculator!) and one team challenge with Think Academy. I thought it was very well executed with enough diversity to access anybody’s strengths. I was placed runner-up in my category that day, much to my teachers’ delight. The other students in my school excelled on that day, and at no point did anybody say “this is boring”. My fellow students were beginning to see maths the way I have always seen it and that made me very happy. It became apparent that discussing maths in my school was no longer ‘uncool’, but a regular occurrence.

Our school continued to top the school leaderboards and even some of the student leaderboards. It was truly amazing to see the dedication within myself and my school to work for this title.

An exceptional experience 

Then came the final day of the challenge: The MATHletes National Final, where finalists from all around the country, including 30 students from Fingal CC, competed in three rounds very similar to that of the Provincial Finals. Our 30 finalists completed each round with a smile and soon it was time to announce the winners. The student prizes were announced and then the school prizes.

I can’t begin to explain the reaction of our school when we were announced as The Secondary Division MATHletes Champions of 2014. Two of our teachers had tears in their eyes, and all of our faces were beaming with joy. We had started as hundreds of individuals, but we won as a whole, one team who claimed victory, for ourselves and our captains.

The Transition Year students of Fingal CC have begun to visit our local primary schools as a part of our Gaisce Award. We are helping them set up Khan Academy accounts and teaching them how to use the site to personalise their learning experience. This experience has led me to consider teaching as a career. What MATHletes and Khan academy has done to my fellow students and I is exceptional, and we feel it is important to spread the message of MATHletes and have it influence schools in our area, the way it so brilliantly has affected ours.

Come January 5th it will all begin again, and we’re ready and waiting. #bringit

Hannah Leonard is a Transition Year student at Fingal Community College, Swords, Co. Dublin.

Find out more about the MATHletes challenge here

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Hannah Leonard

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