First, a little math humor to ease the tension of competition.

"So," came the voice over the PA system in the University Center North Ballroom on Tuesday morning, "what did infinity say to pi?"

There were brief groans of lame-punch-line anticipation.

"Be rational."

Then more groans, these ones louder. Middle-school students know eye-rolling humor when they hear it. And so did these 100 math wizzes, gathered in the UC for a day of brain-busting math puzzles in the annual MathCounts competition.

Representing 11 public and private schools in western Montana, the students spent the entire day here, testing their knowledge of mathematical concepts far beyond what they are expected to know at their age.

In the daylong event, student teams and individuals competed, their scientific calculators at the ready.

"They spend a good part of their year honing themselves for this," said Troy Monroe, a senior engineer at Morrison Maierle and coordinator of the Missoula regional. It was one of seven events happening statewide in the next few days.

MathCounts is a national competition designed to stoke interest in mathematics and science. At the end of the day, 14 of 100 children would move on to the state finals, scheduled to take place this March in Bozeman.

Hellgate Middle School science teacher Brent Heist brought 10 advanced math students to MathCounts this year. All of them are proficient at their grade level, but many are several grades above where they need to be, he said.

"The winners are definitely upper-level high school math," Heist said. "Some are doing trigonometry, and thinking about calculus."

In one of the team rounds, the Alberton squad of four worked furiously to answer eight tough questions, given only 20 minutes to complete them.

Eighth-grader Jaymen Sibert took quick control of the team effort.

"OK, I'll do No. 2 and No. 5," he said confidently as his teammates tapped away on their calculators and whispered strategies back and forth. Within a few minutes, a teammate leaned in.

"Has anyone done No. 4?" he asked.

"No," said Sibert. "I don't know the calculation for four. Four is open. Four is difficult."

Students are forced to deal with stress, especially in the morning individual rounds. Savannah Stanhope, a Hellgate Middle School eighth-grader, graded herself after the first two rounds.

"The time limit is stressful, so sometimes I had to just skip over some of them," she said. "The first round, I did pretty well compared to the others. But the second time, I don't think I did as good."

Her teammate Maddie Keiper said the intimidation factor at MathCounts came into play.

"I know several of the kids here," said the eighth grader. "And I know they're really smart."

That comes with the territory, said Monroe. But MathCounts also is the students' chance to stretch their knowledge and to show off what they know.

"The competition lets the students showcase their skills, but mostly it involves them with math," he said. "You'd be amazed at what they can answer off the top of their heads."

Reporter Jamie Kelly can be reached at 523-5254 or at jkelly@missoulian.com.

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