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Bringing the Community into the Equation

Bringing the Community into the EquationLocal high school students take over Cousens Gym to show off their mathematics skills in an annual competition.

Medford/Somerville, Mass. [10.23.09] In the long-running network show "Junkyard Wars," contestants are asked to complete an engineering challenge using only materials found in a junkyard. At noon on Oct. 25, Tufts will host the Somerville Mathematics Fund in its own version of the television show, known as the Scrapheap Showdown.

Now in its fifth year, each one hosted at Tufts, the Showdown consists of teams of high school students who complete a mathematical challenge with the materials given to them. They could be as simple as paper, tape and string or include ball bearings and power tools. The challenge, posed by the volunteer board members of the Somerville Mathematics Fund, can range from building paper bridges to see which will hold the most weight to constructing windmills that must lift a certain weight and use power to turn on a light.

Tufts Mathematics Professor Zbigniew Nitecki, a member of the board of the Somerville Mathematics Fund, participated in last year's Showdown and was particularly impressed with students' abilities.

"The bridges were amazing. The winning one held 42 pounds," Nitecki says. "The
students are really wonderful to watch."

The Somerville Mathematics Fund provides scholarships for students who reside in Somerville and show promise in math and science. The fund also organizes family math nights in the schools and a celebration of Pi Day (held March 14---3.14).
They will be celebrating their 10th anniversary next fall on Oct. 10 (10.10.10, naturally).

The goal, according to organization founder Erica Dakin Voolich, was to get young people thinking about their future and using math in any way they see fit, whether it be engineering, accounting or theoretical mathematics.

"Not only do we give out scholarships, but we want to do activities that are getting people excited about math and preparing them to use the scholarship," she says.

Voolich says many Tufts graduate students have helped out with the Showdown over the years, and she hopes that Tufts undergraduates will come to the Carzo Cage in Cousens Gym to watch this year's Showdown.

"Tufts has been very generous. It's a wonderful gift of space that we've been able to use," says Voolich.

Story by Catherine Scott, (A'11)

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