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One fish, two fish, square root of Q fish

As children in Asia, Pasadena's national math champs learned numbers the way local kids read Dr. Seuss.

June 24, 2008|Gale Holland | Times Staff Writer

In China, competitive math teams are groomed and cosseted like college football squads. And in Vietnam, a television show called "Go to Olympia" tracks math contestants almost as if they were budding American Idols.

So it came as little surprise that when Pasadena City College's math team won a national contest this year, six of the members were Chinese-born. The seventh arrived from Vietnam two years ago. It was PCC's eighth first-place finish since it began competing in the American Mathematical Assn. of Two-Year Colleges contest in 1988.

So are Americans just dunces at math?

No, several of the winners said. But "they don't want to do the homework," Shanghai native Chenchen Zhang said of his American-born counterparts in an interview at a campus coffee kiosk. "If we don't do the homework, I wouldn't do well either."

On the other hand, while American parents might read their children Dr. Seuss, many Asian families play sophisticated math-based card games or train in mental math, the PCC students said. Zhang said that as a child, he often sat on the back of his father's bicycle on the way to school and the pair practiced the Fibonacci number sequence (0+1=1, 1+1= 2, 1+2=3, 2+3=5 . . . ). And that's when Zhang was 7.

"In China, I was in training for math team, just like Americans train for football, in middle school," said Zhang, now 20. Zhang emigrated from Shanghai at 16 and attended San Gabriel High School.

Zhenhua Cui -- who was the top individual scorer in the national math contest and won a $3,000 scholarship -- has also competed in Asia, where the questions were harder, he said.

"There were many opportunities for contests, every month since elementary school," said Cui, also 20. He left the northern Jilin province of China in the summer of 2004 and attended Sunny Hills High School in Fullerton. He went to PCC because his father, an acupuncturist, works in downtown Los Angeles, he said.

The students accepted their awards earlier this month during a ceremony at Harbeson Hall on PCC's campus on Colorado Boulevard.

Of course, not all Asian students are good at or interested in math, and the community college competition does not appear to have been ruled over the years by any single ethnic group. PCC's entrants, for instance, were not all Asian, but the top ones were. (The student body as of fall 2007 was 31% Asian or Pacific Islander, including those born in the United States.)

Still, Catherine Cooper, a UC Santa Cruz psychology professor specializing in the role of culture in learning, said she's not surprised by the PCC team's success.

"The model in Asia in general is that performance is not based on talent, it's based on effort, and they do work harder. They work in a different way as well. . . . There's much more emphasis on peer study groups and learning groups," Cooper said. "So the team format is very compatible. . . . It's an invitation to all of us to rethink how to nourish our children's learning."

The community college math competition consisted of two one-hour exams, administered to thousands of students on their home campuses. Each school's team consisted of its top scorers.

The questions were all pre-calculus level or below. Only one question was intelligible to a reporter:

"Each bag to be loaded onto a plane weighs either 12, 18, or 22 pounds. If the plane is carrying exactly 1,000 pounds of luggage, what is the largest number of bags it could be carrying?"

Scribbling hatch marks and grouping them in circles, the reporter came up with an answer: 83. Hien Huynh, 19, politely looked over her work sheet, then whipped a calculator out of his backpack.

Three equations and one lengthy explanation later, he produced the solution: 82. Not to worry, the exam was mostly trick questions, Huynh said.

Math professor and team moderator Jude Socrates was similarly reassuring. Socrates, who was raised in the Philippines, said he appreciates the well-roundedness of American-educated students.

As for why these talented math students decided to start at a community college, most said they arrived in the U.S. in mid-to-late high school and planned to spend the two years immersing themselves in the English language, particularly its science and math terminology. Then, they said, they hope to transfer to UC Berkeley or other top schools.

Team member Erin Shen heads this summer to Caltech, a point of pride to Socrates, who earned his doctorate in math there.

"This test showed how far I can go, to myself and others," said Cui, who plans to transfer to UC Berkeley. "I still have a lot of things to learn."

--

gale.holland@latimes.com

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