Math Competition: The Benefits of Participating

By Julie Yi
June 24, 2016

Math competitions are in full swing and students are busy preparing for, participating in, and reviewing both regional and national contests.  Winners are celebrating awards being handed out in thousands of elementary, middle, and high schools across the nation.

Most people think that students who win math competitions know more advanced concepts such as calculus and have memorized more formulas.  This is not the case.  True mathematics is not about memorizing formulas and applying them to problems that are tailor made for those formulas, but, instead, is about applying basic concepts to solve problems.

Competing students spend countless hours learning, practicing, and reviewing difficult problems.  In math clubs, they learn how to apply what they have learned in a creative way, how to think critically, and how to apply problem solving skills.  But why put much effort into competitions that do not count toward school grades?

Here’s why.  Following are some of the benefits of competing in math contests, to be addressed in more detail in subsequent articles.

  • Students learn critical thinking and creative problem solving skills, which can be applied to all aspects of academic discipline and help students excel.
  • Students learn by teaching while explaining their solutions to fellow students.
  • Students score higher in college entrance exams because they have learned to work under time constraints in a competitive environment.
  • Many students who excel in math find school math classes boring.  Math clubs and competitions provide an excellent opportunity for them to challenge themselves and have fun at the same time.

In addition, math competitions build confidence and teach teamwork, the discipline to prepare, and the perseverance to tackle complex problems.  Students learn to excel in a competitive environment.

Some of the annual nationwide contests that attract hundreds of thousands of students are:

  • American Mathematics Competitions (AMC8, AMC10, AMC12) – tests available worldwide to all ages
  • Math Olympiad: five monthly contests from November-March for elementary and middle school students.
  • Mathcounts: for middle school students
  • Mandelbrot: advanced contest for high school
  • Math Kangaroo: for elementary, middle, and high school students

These lead to the highest levels of competition:

  • AIME: Top 10,000 qualifying students are invited to participate.
  • USAMO: Top 500 students from AIME are selected to participate
  • IMO: Top six students represent the United States at an international competition with approximately 100 other countries.

Julie Yi is director of Apex College Prep with locations in Walnut Creek and Cupertino, Calif. She may be reached at

Presentation and Public Speaking – Part 2

By Julie Yi
May 22, 2016
(Continued from last edition)

As mentioned in Part 1 of this article, debate is the best method for introducing students to public speaking because it provides a safe and friendly environment that significantly reduces anxiety and fear.  The interactive nature of clashing in debate makes it an enjoyable for students as they exchange arguments and counter arguments.

During each speech, debaters must not only make arguments in advocacy of their own positions, but also must be able to defend their positions against any objections raised by their opponents.  During each speech, the opposition is allowed to raise objections to try to disrupt (clash with) the speaker.  The goal is to point out flaws in the opposing speakers’ arguments.  Debaters learn quickly to anticipate opposition and think on their feet.

Clashing during debate also teaches students that some issues are not always as clear cut as they appear to be on the surface and that another side of the story exists.  As they begin to research, they find that there may be many good arguments to support the opposing position.  With information and experience, they gain confidence and learn to defend their positions without hesitation when objections are raised.

For example, a recent debate topic was “We should ban plastics bags.”  Through research, students learned that this was not a one-sided issue and that there were compelling arguments on both sides.  The debate was very lively with arguments and counter arguments.  The “pro” side said plastic bags are bad for the environment because they are not biodegradable.  The “con” side argued that paper bags necessitate killing trees and are more expensive to produce.  Students learned that they must anticipate the presentation of logical facts that support the opposition and be prepared for the clashing of arguments.

It is not surprising that many top corporate executives and high-ranking officials in all branches of government rank oral presentation skills learned in debate class among their most important academic activities in school. Lawyers, required to present their cases in a convincing way to persuade the jury, affecting lives in the process, are proponents of debate training as well. “Support from lawyers and law school administrators ranges from a strong endorsement of debate for all pre-law students to a suggestion that it be required.  The reason for such support may be the professional success of former debaters (Colbert and Biggers, p238).

Julie Yi is director of Apex College Prep with locations in Walnut Creek and San Ramon, Calif. She may be reached at

Presentation and Public Speaking – Part 1

By Julie Yi
May 15, 2016

In the past few weeks, this column has discussed various benefits of debate, including critical thinking, current events, research and organization.  Eventually, after numerous hours researching and organizing the information to support a position, the time comes to debate and win.  Debaters must deliver their arguments in a confident and convincing way that will persuade the judges and score a victory for their team.

Consider what Lee Iacocca, CEO of Chrysler, said, “…I joined the debating team, which was sponsored by Mr. Virgil Parks, our Latin teacher. That’s where I developed my speaking skills and learned to think on my feet. At first I was scared to death. I had butterflies in my stomach – and to this day I still get a little nervous before giving a speech. But the experience of being on the debating team was crucial. You can have brilliant ideas, but if you can’t get them across, your brains won’t get you anywhere.” (Iacocca, 16)

A survey conducted by The London Times found that 41 percent of the 3000 respondents listed “fear of public speaking” as their number one fear, while only 19 percent listed “death.”   Despite the apprehension, we know that good public speaking skills are necessary in order to succeed in school and in life.  In academic life, students are required to present book reports and engage in classroom discussions on significant historical and current events.   In the workplace, managers and executives are often required to speak before groups of stockholders, clients, employees and, sometimes, the public.  Excellent presentation skills are crucial to the successful outcome of important scholarship and job interviews.

Debate is the most effective way to introduce students to public speaking.  It provides a safe environment with fellow students in a friendly classroom setting, significantly reducing anxiety and fear.  The interactive nature of debate also makes competition fun as students exchange arguments and counter arguments.

During debate, students learn how to deliver convincing arguments.  Not only must they have pertinent facts and evidence to support their arguments, they must also argue in a passionate and concise way to convince the judges that their team should win.  Typically, they have five minutes to make their arguments.  Students must learn how to manage that time, incorporating all of the arguments they have prepared, and handle objections as well.  They must package the information in a succinct manner that does not belabor a point and waste time.

(To be continued in the next edition)

Julie Yi is director of Apex College Prep with locations in Walnut Creek and San Ramon, Calif. She may be reached

Research and Organization – Part 2

By Julie Yi
May 8, 2016

In addition to enhancing research and organization skills, debate also teaches students to separate good logical evidence and reasoning from that which is poor or mediocre. They learn to understand and use surveys and statistics and become proficient in determining the most credible sources for facts while ignoring evidence from less reliable sources.

Today, the internet allows us to find what we are looking for very quickly and easily.  At the same time, it is now much more difficult to know what information is sound and trustworthy and what is not.  It is crucial for students to learn to analyze information, separate accurate from inaccurate data and discern fact from opinion.  For example, statistics published by government agencies and research results published by Stanford University are considered reliable.  A blog post or a term paper written by an individual is, typically, not a reputable source of facts.

Some of the topics students have debated recently are:  Should we drill for oil in ANWR?  Should the US adopt the Universal Health care system?  Should the US close Guantanamo Bay detention facility?  To recap and illustrate the debate research and organization process, we refer to the exercise “Should the United States drill for oil in ANWR?”   Most students do not know what the topic is about because they are unfamiliar with ANWR.  During their research, they learn that ANWR is the national wildlife reserve in Alaska, that it is very large, that it contains “a lot of oil” (debatable), and that it is pristine wilderness supporting many species of animals and plants.  They learn that the United States imports much of its petroleum from the Middle East and why gasoline prices are rising.  They also learn about related issues such as the Iraq War, environmental protection issues, etc.  As they research and learn about many aspects of the topic, they begin to understand and be able to organize facts in a structured and logical way.  That accomplished, they are ready to begin working on the delivery aspect of their debate.

As Senator McGovern stated (see beginning of Research and Organization Part 1), there is no other school activity that teaches students more about research and organization than debate.

Julie Yi is director of Apex College Prep with locations in Walnut Creek and Cupertino, Calif. She may be reached at


Research and Organization – Part 1

By Julie Yi
April 28, 2016

Senator George McGovern, former Democratic Party candidate for the presidency of the United States, said, “There are few other activities in high school or college that are as important as speech and debate. Regardless of an individual’s academic or career goals, the ability to research a complex question, marshal arguments, and present them in a persuasive and compelling way are skills that will serve you well all your life. Both my wife and I debated in high school and college. Before I entered public life, I taught debate and speech at Dakota Wesleyan University in Mitchell, S.D. I attribute whatever political success I may have enjoyed, in large part, to the training I received as a participant in debate and speech activities (Hunt, 13).”
Debate addresses complex topics, many of which are unfamiliar to students.  In order to prepare to debate, they must conduct extensive research, organize the arguments they wish to make to support their positions, and arrange the facts they have chosen to use as evidence.  Debaters must be prepared to defend their positions against well-prepared opponents if they expect to win and, to accomplish this, must understand not only their own arguments, but must anticipate those of their opponent as well.  It is not surprising that debate is often described as a contact sport because much interaction as takes place as debaters clash with each other during arguments and counter-arguments.

Debate research begins with the search for and discovery of arguments that support the position assigned, as well as credible evidence to support those arguments.  During this process, students must also be mindful of the opposing arguments and evidence as well as their own.

Finding good arguments as well as evidence to support them is only half the battle.  Students must now organize the information and data in a structure that will be used effectively during the debate to persuade the audience and the judge.  Well-structured arguments win debates while poorly-organized arguments do not, despite how compelling the information or its delivery.  Debate training teaches students how to structure their arguments in a way that enables them to deliver a powerful message during the debate competition. (Research and Organization to be continued in the next edition.)

Julie Yi is director of Apex College Prep with locations in Walnut Creek and Cupertino, Calif. She may be reached at


Critical Thinking and Reasoning

By Julie Yi
April 21, 2016

The College Board is author of the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT).  On the College Board website,, the following description of the SAT appears:

SAT Reasoning Test
“The SAT Reasoning Test is the nation’s most widely used admissions test among colleges and universities. It tests students’ knowledge of subjects that are necessary for college success: reading, writing, and mathematics. The SAT assesses the critical thinking skills students need for academic success in college—skills that students learned in high school.”

Webster’s New Millennium Dictionary defines critical thinking as “the mental process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and evaluating information to reach an answer or conclusion”.  Bearing that definition in mind, read what The Conference Board published in the report of the results of a detailed 2006 survey entitled Most Young People Entering the U.S. Workforce Lack Critical Skills Essential for Success. The survey was conducted among 431 human resources professionals by The Conference Board, Corporate Voices for Working Families, the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, and the Society for Human Resource Management. Its objective was to examine employers’ views on the readiness of new entrants to the United States workforce–recently-hired graduates from high schools, two-year colleges or technical schools, and four-year colleges. Following are excerpts from the report.

“The basics plus an array of applied and social skills–from critical thinking to collaboration to communications–defines workforce readiness in the 21st century,” said Ken Kay, President of the Partnership for 21st Century Skills.

“…over half (58 percent) of responding employers say critical thinking and problem solving skills are ‘very important’ for incoming high school graduates’ successful job performance, yet nearly three-quarters of respondents (70 percent) rated recently-hired high school graduates as deficient in critical thinking.”

“The future workforce is here, and it is ill-prepared,” the report concludes.
From a public service perspective, Senator David Boren of Oklahoma said, “As a Senator, my principal responsibilities are threefold: First, a Senator must do his best to reach logical policy conclusions about issues with which our nation is confronted. Second, a Senator should be able to effectively translate technical aspects of a position into language that will clearly communicate it to the public. Third, to be effective, a Senator must have the ability to persuade others to accept his policy conclusions. No aspect of my education was more useful in preparing me to meet these responsibilities than my training in speech and debate.” (Hunt, p14).
Debate is by far the best method for learning critical thinking.  It requires students to read critically, analyze, and evaluate the evidence found through research. Then, they must organize their thoughts and present their findings in a logical and succinct way.  Throughout this process, debaters must also think about the opposition’s arguments.  What will they say?  What facts support their side?  How can I refute their arguments?

Debate also teaches students strategic thinking–how to be critical of opposition in a productive way using facts and logic–and learn to appreciate the other side by listening and being open-minded.

In this information age, critical thinking skill is especially important for higher learning and beyond.  With the internet, a mountain of information is available at our fingertips, instantly.  What to do we do with all that information?  How can we tell good information from bad? What information, presented as fact, can truly be trusted?  These are the questions students, lawyers, politicians, executives and all of us must address in our daily lives.  The ability and willingness to critically evaluate information is a key factor that determines whether we will succeed in our jobs.

In addition, a critical thinker must be fair and open-minded.  He or she must assess the reasons for and against a position or action and then make a decision based on facts, not on emotions or on what a friend said.  It was almost fashionable during the years of the George W. Bush administration, especially during the last four years, for people to say, “Bush is stupid”.  Many young students joined in and did not hesitate to blurt out the same phrase, demeaning the president.  When asked why they thought he was stupid, very few could give a single good reason to defend their position because they were just repeating what others were saying without understanding the reasons.  If they had looked at the evidence and evaluated it from both sides, they may have come to a different conclusion, and perhaps not.  In either case, they would have been able to support their statement with intelligent reasons.  They would have used the effort, intelligence, and open-mindedness that critical thinking requires.

Julie Yi is director of Apex College Prep with locations in Walnut Creek and Cupertino, Calif. She may be reached at

Learning Current Events and Leadership Through Debate

By Julie Yi
April 14, 2016

When talking about the many benefits of debate programs, most educators, students, and parents think of developing oral communication skills such as public speaking.  They immediately conjure up images of Martin Luther King delivering his famous “I Have a Dream” speech or one of President Barack Obama’s speeches on the campaign trail.

Though debate programs definitely help develop public speaking skills, they also expand ability in two areas that are very important and often overlooked — understanding current events and developing leadership skills.  Following is an example that illustrates this point.

Last October, just before the general election, APEX College Prep held an open house and invited students and their parents.  During the gathering, debate teachers asked the audience how many of them were familiar with Proposition 2.  A few  hands went up, including several middle school students who are enrolled the debate class.  One eighth grader explained that it is a ballot measure about treating farm animals humanely.  (Incidentally, the proposition passed in November.)

When asked about Proposition 1, even fewer hands went up and another eighth grade debate student explained it concerned a high speed rail system between San Francisco and Los Angeles. Many parents were not familiar with it and none of the students other than the debate class students knew what it involved.

Propositions and ballot measures are important issues we all need to know.  Most young people these days neither read newspapers nor watch news broadcasts on television.  They get their news, if any, from their parents, friends, or the internet, all of which can be twisted or biased.  Debate programs enable students to receive news from unbiased sources so that they can research, analyze, and draw their own conclusions based on facts.  They develop the ability to think and make sound decisions, one of the qualities that leaders of our society are asked to use every day.

When leaders in politics, business and various professions were surveyed, 100 of 160 had debated, and 90 of 100 believed that their debate experience had been extremely valuable in their careers (Klopf, p7).  William Jefferson Clinton, Hillary Rodham Clinton, John F, Kennedy, Jimmy Carter, Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin Roosevelt are a few leaders who participated in debate programs at their schools.

Debate programs empower students to learn among their peers, grow, and become experts in their fields.  In such programs, students become familiar with current events, research, analyze, organize and present arguments in a logical and succinct manner.  Senator Edmund Muskie, former Democratic candidate for Vice President and Secretary of State under President Jimmy Carter, said, “”The development of leadership in a democratic society has a very direct relationship to the art of debate. One becomes a leader by molding public opinion to support a given course of action, not by dictating such an action. This involves the ability to pinpoint the critical issues of the day, and the willingness to apply oneself to the task of research in order to assemble all considerations bearing upon those issues. It requires the ability to apply logic, rather than emotion and prejudice, to the assembled data, the courage to accept the decisions thus indicated, and the ability to present the opinions thus developed in such ways as to persuade others to a like point of view (Hunt, 13).”

At APEX College Prep, some of the topics students have debated recently are:  Should we drill for oil in ANWR?  Should the US adopt the Universal Health care system?  Should the US close Guantanamo Bay detention facility?

Julie Yi is director of Apex College Prep with locations in Walnut Creek and Cupertino, Calif. She may be reached at

How does debate help students excel?

By Julie Yi
April 7, 2016

President John F. Kennedy said, “I think debating in high school and college a most valuable training whether for politics, the law, business, or for service on community committees such as the PTA and the League of Women Voters. A good debater must not only study material in support of his own case, but he must also, of course, thoroughly analyze the expected arguments of his opponent….The give and take of debating, the testing of ideas, is essential to democracy. I wish we had a good deal more debating in our institutions than we do now” (Freedom and Union, 7).

The words President Kennedy spoke decades ago are resonating with contemporary parents and education specialists as the popularity of debate clubs grows by leaps and bounds.  At education centers throughout California, educators are quickly adding debate and essay programs to their typical after-school offerings of homework support, tutoring, and Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) preparation classes.  Why the sudden rapid growth?

Awareness is increasing that, more than any other educational endeavor, debate teaches students to investigate new ideas and open their minds to various viewpoints.  It is certainly a way of thinking and learning that Korean-American parents want their children to possess. In addition, debate teaches nearly all of the skills necessary for success in school as well.  During research, students learn note taking and critical reading.  Throughout the preparation process, they learn analysis, critical thinking, organization and writing skills.  Finally, the presentation component teaches them public speaking, poise and confidence, and “thinking on their feet”.
As we know, college-bound students must now craft a persuasive essay as part of the writing section of each SAT test.  Debaters have a true advantage because of their experience preparing for competitions where persuasion is the ultimate goal.   Knowing this, some education center programs reinforce the inherent preparation by including a required essay component as a post-presentation exercise and grading it in the SAT format.
The debate process nurtures an interest in current events and the political, social and economic issues of today’s world that will last a lifetime.  The rich blend of skills developed during the entire debate experience adds to students’ “competitive edge”, not only as they proceed through their formal education experiences, but throughout their adult lives as well.
Julie Yi is director of Apex College Prep with locations in Walnut Creek and Cupertino, Calif. She may be reached at