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Nearly 350 students gathered at the Santa Maria Fairpark early May 15 for the annual North County Math Superbowl, where they were challenged with complex word problems and collaborative building activities. 

Hosted by the Orcutt Union School District, the North County Math Superbowl included 29 schools from Santa Maria, Santa Ynez Valley, Orcutt and Lompoc. Four students were selected from grades 4 to 6 with a total of 12 students representing each school. 

The competition gives students who show interest, passion and strong skills in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields a chance to shine, according to Holly Edds, assistant superintendent of Educational Services for the Orcutt Union School District. 

"We're seeing more and more interest and focus on STEM subjects being taught, because it gets students ready for real world applications, critical thinking and logical reasoning," said Edds, adding that when students enter the job market they are applying their skills beyond math to engineering and science. 

Classrooms replicate that concept in their curriculum, according to Edds, and the annual competition is a tool to encourage skill-building exercises and, mostly importantly, to have fun with math. 

"It's always a positive reception," Edds said. "We have quite a few parents that come out for the competition."

The competition format included four sections. The first section of the competition included the first part of the individual test, where each student had 25 minutes to answer 25 math questions with no calculators. The test was all multiple choice and included more computational and conceptual problems. 

The second part of the individual test focused on solving five word problems -- with a range of difficulty starting with the first question being the easiest of the five. 

Next was the team test, where students could congregate in their groups and answer five questions in 30 minutes with calculators. Then, the competition rounded off with the hands-on activity, where school teams had to come up with a way to build a tower that could hold a tennis ball. 

The students were allotted three feet of masking tape and 25 straws to build their towers, said Christina Samaniego, staff member at the OUSD Educational Services office. 

"The challenge here is that the ball must be lifted up at least one straw length off the table, and the students can't attach the ball to straws using the tape," Samaniego explained.

"The team with the highest towers that can hold the tennis ball will win the competition," she added. "For this activity, the students are using a lot of teamwork, collaboration skills and creativity to build something with a limited amount of resources."

Miller Elementary School's sixth-grader Keilah McCormack led her team during the tower-building challenge, a task that she was only too happy to be delegated with, as she was a second-year competitor. 

"Coming back this year is fun because I'm working with a whole new team this year," she said. "I'm sad because I'm graduating and going to junior high next year, but it's OK."

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Miller Elementary's math coach, Krista Kringel, who teachers fifth grade, said she couldn't be more proud of her students who made it to the Math Superbowl.

The school has a selective process to choose their competitors: Each student has to take a placement test; then, the top four scorers from each grade level are chosen, Kringel said. 

"We practice throughout the year for the competition," she said. "The students learn a lot of pre-algebra concepts, word problems and everything else to best apply their skills and get ready for the Superbowl."

While the team couldn't successfully build a tower, Keilah said she had fun, nevertheless. 

"I think it's important for girls, to be good at this field to show everyone that girls can do anything," she added. 

After each school was given their chance to show how tall their towers climbed, and how well they were able to hold a tennis ball, Hancock College President Kevin Walthers delivered the keynote speech to the competitors, encouraging every one of them to pursue higher education. 

"How many of you want to go to college for free? How many parents out there want their kids to go to college for free?" Walthers asked, as he was met with hundreds of hands raised in the air. 

"When you get [to Hancock], we're going to pay for your first year of tuition fees," he said. "That's on us; that's on your community. Everyone can go to college for free, so there's no excuses to not go after high school."

Gina Kim covers crime and courts for Santa Maria Times. Follow her on Twitter @gina_k210

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