Since last November, I’ve been spending odd bits of time here and there hanging out with a group of bright teenagers who do math competitions. They’re a wonderful bunch of kids, nurtured by a great group of adults. (Journal photographer Marla Brose has been working on this with me since the beginning, and her pictures are great. Unfortunately not on the web yet.)
Jack Ingalls jumped up to the whiteboard and grabbed a fist full of colored pens.
“There’s a really elegant solution,” the Sandia Prep eighth-grader said as he began sketching out the answer to a math problem.
Switching between red, green and blue, Ingalls drew a series of circles, squares and triangles and explained the simple way out of what sounded like an impossible tangle of a problem:
You’ve got a deck of cards with a triangle, circle or square on each card, and each one is red, green or blue, and the colors are either light, medium or dark, so how many possible combinations of three cards are there which …
The problem went on, and to a visitor unfamiliar with the terrain, Ingalls’ solution sounded every bit as tangled as the problem.
But not to the students around the table. They grasped its elegance.
“Rule number one,” said Bill Cordwell, a Sandia Labs physicist and the informal math coach for the Saturday morning gathering in the Manzano High School library: “Don’t get intimidated by an impossible-sounding problem.”