By Caelum van Ispelen, Class of 2023
Saunter past Upper School room A-11 on Wednesdays at lunch and you will hear the rumbling gears of some fascinating minds.
Some days you'll listen to combinatorics; other times it might be hyperbolic trigonometry—or if you're lucky, the venerable Chicken McNugget theorem. But invariably, that classroom holds students exploring the reaches of mathematical knowledge that extend well beyond what is traditionally taught in school.
This is the Math Club: a group of students coming together to connect over mathematics and its enigmas. Led by senior Zachary Klein, with the guidance of seasoned math teacher Adella Croft, its five-year history has seen not only valuable connection and bonding over a shared interest, but also exceptional performances in national and international mathematics competitions.
Compared to the courses offered at school, the Math Club offers a much more varied perspective on mathematics. "We don't have a set agenda; we just do what interests us," said club president Zachary. For many students across all knowledge levels, this flexibility rekindles an appreciation for math's intrinsic beauty. "It's refreshing to think about a broader range of approaches to problems rather than peering through the same lens for the whole year, as would be the case in a class," said club member Caelum van Ispelen.
There's something meaningful in struggling with a problem and not managing to make progress. It's valuable exposure for everyone, and we learn how to deal with things that seem impossible.—Senior Zachary Klein, Math Club president
A primary goal of the club is to enrich people's appreciation for the creativity in math and problem-solving. Asked about the difference between competition and school math, Zachary said, "The main difference is your level of preparedness ... when you take a math test at school, you've already seen the same problems, just with different numbers." In competition math, he argues, none of the questions follow this pattern. "You're never going to see a problem you've seen before. You have the tools to solve them, but you have to figure out how to use those tools in a way that's almost unique to yourself and your identity."
Even students who might not find a use for the range of mathematical concepts covered in the Math Club still walk away with indispensable wisdom: the ability to fail. "There's something meaningful in struggling with a problem and not managing to make progress," said Zachary. "It's valuable exposure for everyone, and we learn how to deal with things that seem impossible."
As students leave for college and brace themselves for the much-increased challenge of its courses, this exposure will certainly come into play. In fact, many Math Club members are already experiencing university-level rigor in the form of the newly introduced Advanced Topics in Mathematics course. Faced with the complexities of percolation and group theory, these students find themselves remembering the Math Club wisdom in their struggle to persevere. "Doing competition math and taking tests where 25 percent is considered a good score definitely sparked my tenacity for challenging material," said Caelum.
Armed with a drive to connect to other math-minded people, the members of the Math Club are helping to spread their burgeoning knowledge to younger students as well. Zachary now leads Mission Math Utah, a nonprofit organization dedicated to creating awareness and appreciation for STEM topics across elementary and middle school students. Remarking on the organization's no-questions-asked financial aid policy for tutoring and competitions, Zachary said, "I've heard from people how thankful they are for the easy financial aid, and it lets them discover more math. That's really meaningful to me."
Senior Zachary Klein and juniors Dean Hijjawi, Sophie Zheng, and Isabelle Jiang ranked in the top 5 percent of American Mathematics Contest test takers, qualifying for the American Invitational Mathematics Examination (AIME). This success marks the second-highest number of AIME-qualifying students from any school in Utah in 2023—as well as the fourth year in a row Rowland Hall students have performed at this level.
Beyond the Math Club's success in spreading creativity, the 2022–2023 school year has been no exception to the students' prowess in nationally renowned competitions. After periods of intense studying, wrestling through heaps of problems and scratch paper, students in the Math Club participated in the American Mathematics Contest (AMC), an immensely competitive exam that demands the most creative and intricate problem-solving skills. In a stellar performance, senior Zachary Klein and juniors Dean Hijjawi, Sophie Zheng, and Isabelle Jiang ranked in the top 5 percent of AMC test takers, qualifying for the American Invitational Mathematics Examination (AIME). This success marks the second-highest number of AIME-qualifying students from any school in Utah in 2023—as well as the fourth year in a row Rowland Hall students have performed at this level.
On top of this astounding achievement, students from the Math Club participating in the American Regional Mathematics League (ARML) are performing phenomenally as well. With their participation, the Utah team won first place in the ARML Power international competition in 2022. The team was then invited to travel to Boston where they competed in the Harvard-MIT Mathematics Tournament. In the team round, they ranked seventh place in the nation.
Given this legacy of achievement and contributions spread throughout the past five years, the Math Club will continue to thrive. And with Zachary graduating this year, it will be up to the younger generations of students to take the helm—and they are well prepared.