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Students compute for math trophy, bragging rights

Can you solve this problem?

There are 175 fourth- and fifth-graders seated at 45 tables in a school cafeteria. Seven students will win a door prize. What are the odds that three of the winners will come from the same table?

That actually happened Saturday during the Mighty Mu math competition for fourth through eighth grades at Palm Harbor University High School. Mu Alpha Theta, an honors math club at the high school, hosted the fifth annual competition.

It was the kind of event where at least some of the kids present had the intellectual candlepower to tackle the problem. Cassidy Bingham, one of three students from the unusually lucky table, had a theory.

"It might have been because we all put our numbers in (the raffle box) at the same time," said the fourth-grader from Curtis Fundamental.

She and about 300 of Pinellas County's best and brightest showed up early at the high school campus to flex their mental muscles and show off more than new braces.

"We want to show the kids it's fun to do math," said Christian Stober, 17, president of the host club.

"Lots of times these kids are persecuted and called dorks because they are interested in academics," he said. "We want to show them that math can be fun, not something to be ashamed of."

The competition was open to all public and private schools north of Ulmerton Road. Each school was allowed two teams of four per grade level. The pupils earned points for speed and accuracy in both team and individual competitions. Five middle and 18 elementary schools vied for trophies and recognition.

For some, the competition meant having a case of the nerves.

Referring to a teammate from Curtis Fundamental Elementary, 9-year-old Keya Patel said, "Me and her had sweaty palms, and our knees were shaking yesterday in the cafeteria. I was telling my mom I didn't want to come, but now I'm glad I did, because it's really fun."

The fourth-grade whiz kids were given team questions like this: The Corleone family sold 25 bottles of olive oil at $10 a bottle. If it costs $150 to make 50 bottles of olive oil, what is the profit?

One team promptly gathered into a huddle and asked, "What's a profit?"

Carolyn Voytko, a fifth-grader at Leila Davis Elementary, said she was a true competitor.

"I like seeing if I know more than the other gifted students at other schools know," she said.

Her teammate, Philip Bauer, 10, is said to be the smartest kid at the school.

"I play chess," he said. "I expect to win, because I look around and don't see a lot of people who can outdo me."

While having smarts in elementary school might earn one some bragging rights, the scenario appears to change in middle school, where it can trigger a few headaches.

Mark Diba, 12, from Safety Harbor Middle, said he didn't like being smart.

"People (in school) are always coming up to me and asking me to solve their problems, and I don't always know the answer, and then they can't understand why," he said.

Bridget Hendricks, 12, from Safety Harbor Middle, said she sometimes tried to hide the fact that she is smart.

"When I'm with the stuck-up group, we just talk about boys and stuff," she said.

And for those still grappling with that first question, here's the answer, courtesy of Christian Stober: the odds of three door prizes going to the same table Saturday were 1 in 38,000.

Winning schools:

Safety Harbor Middle School and Ridgecrest Elementary School were named best overall, or sweepstakes winners, at Saturday's Mighty Mu math competition at Palm Harbor University High School. Winners by grade level were: fourth grade, McMullen Booth Elementary; fifth grade, Ridgecrest; sixth grade, Safety Harbor Middle; seventh grade, Coachman Fundamental; and algebra one, Safety Harbor Middle.