February 29, 2008 – University of Virginia mathematics professor Irina Mitrea can recall participating in math competitions in middle school and the passion for math those events instilled in her. She now coaches the Sutherland Middle School team in the MathCounts competition in an effort to promote the same long-term enthusiasm for the subject in her students.
"When I was in middle school I participated in math competitions and I felt like they were fun," Mitrea said. "I really feel like that is what got me interested and kept me interested in the subject."
Now in its 25th year, MathCounts is a national math enrichment, coaching and competition program organized by the National Society of Professional Engineers and the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. It is designed to promote interest in mathematics among middle school students across the country.
"I think that it really teaches them to think outside the box," said Mitrea, who does not have any children on the team. "The problems are hard and its takes ingenuity and creativity to be able to solve them. … I think it really brings up the excitement and beauty of mathematics. For talented students like these, the advantages of participating in an event like this is that it keeps you interested while a regular math class might not."
Mitrea, an associate professor of mathematics, has been meeting weekly with eight Sutherland students since September, and her team competed in the Skyline Regional competition in February. Thirteen schools and 83 students participated in the event. Sutherland won the team category and took first, second, fourth and fifth places in the individual category. The team now moves on to the Virginia contest in Richmond on March 15. Depending on their performance at the state level, they could earn a spot at the national competition in May.
Mitrea's motivations for working with the program include a desire to promote math among young women. She volunteered to mentor the team after she worked with a talented student in a mathematics summer program for girls and realized that her school did not have a MathCounts coach.
"I am also interested in encouraging minorities in the sciences," Mitrea said. "A lot of the sciences are male-dominated fields, and I thought what was really nice is that the two people that placed first and second in the individual competition were both girls."
Others at the University recognize the importance of Mitrea's work in the local community, as well as in the mathematics department.
"Professor Mitrea has made a sustained effort to engage students at many levels with her excitement for research and applications of mathematics," Vice Provost for Academic Programs J. Milton Adams said. "In the short time she has been on the faculty at Virginia, she started programs for middle school students, as well as a program for our U.Va. students to participate in an international mathematics competition."
Robert Pianta, dean of the Curry School of Education, added that working with a professor could benefit the students in the long term.
"Someone who is an experienced mathematician can create a level of interest in math that others might not," Pianta said. "They can see that this is something that they can continue to do when they are adults."