Lubin Deng sees life lessons lurking behind integers, variables and equations.
The 17-year-old Cherry Creek High School senior is president of the school's Math Team, a group of about 20 students who spend their spare time solving problems that would baffle many a college student. Deng and his fellow Cherry Creek Math Team members are at ease when they're solving for X. They're comfortable cycling through complex equations and plugging numbers into seemingly endless formulas to find the right answer.
For Deng, the lure of such work is simple.
"Solving challenging math problems is fascinating, because the solution paths are very unexpected and surprising," said Deng, who received the 2014 Richard E. Lomax National Trig-Star Award from the National Society of Professional Surveyors last year. "Once you find the right solution path and you solve the problem, you get a sense of delight and accomplishment.
"These problems inspire me to be more creative, they push me to solve problems in real life," he added.
By that standard, Deng and his teammates are well on their way to tackling life's toughest problems. The Cherry Creek Math Team's most recent accomplishments include reaching the final four of the AMC/Interstellar High School Mathematics National Championship, a contest that pitted Cherry Creek students against top-ranked math teams from Arizona, Illinois, Hawaii, California and Texas.
In defeating the team from Clement High School in Sugar Land, Texas, five Creek students received a perfect score of 8 out of 8. Deng was one of them.
"Our opponent from Texas was ranked third in the nation. We knew that we would have a very hard time defeating this team, and we knew that we would have to get perfect scores," Deng said. "I didn't expect, because the rounds kept getting harder. It made me very happy that I contributed to the team's victory."
Deng's team spirit isn't uncommon on a team that comprises members of all ages and backgrounds. These students work together easily thanks to a shared passion for mathematics, and that enthusiasm doesn't know boundaries of age. That much is clear from the experiences of Austen Mazenko. At 12 years old, Mazenko is the youngest member of a group that includes high-school seniors working on their applications to Ivy League colleges. Mazenko is officially a student at Campus Middle School, but his math skills are far beyond that facility's curriculum. He's enrolled in a pre-calculus class at Cherry Creek High School; as a registered student, he's officially eligible to be a part of the Math Team.
Mazenko helped lead the club to victory in the Interstellar championship with a perfect score, a feat he's repeated in other high-stakes math contests. Mazenko sees a greater challenge in such competitions, in part because of the range of required skills.
"The math competitions cover a wide variety of different types of questions; they have a different feel than regular problems. You can have one geometry problem and then an arithmetic question," Mazenko said. "I find it more intriguing and more captivating than regular math classes."
With such students on the team, it isn't difficult for Cherry Creek High School teacher Dotty Dady to coordinate the Math Team. Dady, a high-level math instructor at the high school during regular hours, shies away from the word "teacher" when it comes to the Math Team. She speaks instead of sponsoring a group of students who need little in the way of guidance or motivation.
"I learn a lot from them. They show me ways to do things that I would have never thought of," Dady said. "They teach me more than I can teach them. I think of myself more as a facilitator. Somebody has to arrange all of these contests and keep them on track, but these kids are incredibly smart."
Many of the students have completed Creek's highest-level math classes – abstract algebra and linear algebra – before their senior year, and take college-level courses at the University of Denver, the University of Colorado and other schools.
"Just like we have athletes, we have mathletes who do the same thing," Dady said.
For students like Avi Swartz, a 16-year-old sophomore, the thrill of competition is only a small part of the appeal of the team. Like Deng and Mazenko, Swartz turns philosophical when he speaks of the magic of math. He's racked up a lot of experience in high-stakes math contests, and he's already started thinking of a future academic career at the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Still, the real draw of the discipline remains rooted at a much deeper level.
"You can apply math to physics and computer science and all of that, but I really like how you can go from the physical concept of what the numbers represent to all of these abstract manipulations," Swartz said. "It's really cool how you can then come up with an answer that has an application to something. It's symbolic logic."
Those concepts may be daunting to many, but Swartz has found a like-minded group of brilliant minds in this Math Team, a group committed to turning numbers and equations into applicable life lessons.