The culmination: Years of hard work pay off for Scottsbluff at Math Day

Scottsbluff High School (SHS) math students
Scottsbluff High School (SHS) math students

By Ava Imhof, Scottsbluff High School, for the NebraskaMATH newsletter. Ava is a journalism student at SHS and a National Merit Semifinalist.

Teacher Shelby Aaberg has been the Scottsbluff High School (SHS) Math Club sponsor for 15 years. Throughout this time, he has overseen the development of minds, expanded interest in mathematics throughout the school, and surpassed expectations time and time again.

In the 2021 Nebraska Math Day, hosted online by the University of Nebraska–Lincoln Department of Mathematics, SHS earned four of the eight available trophies for Math Bowl, a team quiz-bowl tournament. The school can contribute their standout performance to approximately 100 hours of practice throughout the summer and fall, not including the practice members put in personally.

“When we first put in Math Club here in ’06, I had four kids that I drove down in a Crown Victoria to Math Day. Nobody qualified for the Probe II, and we got beat by a school with no name papers [The School of Lost Souls],” Aaberg said.

Cal Heldt, a junior, went to practice every weekday from 3:40 p.m. to 4:45 p.m. during contest season. During this time, Math Club students challenge themselves with difficult problems and work with one another to grow as mathematicians and prepare for competitions like Math Day.

“I worked through every single Probe I competition that Mr. Aaberg had saved. There’s one per year all the way back to 1990,” Heldt said.

Aaberg also gathers students over summer break for extra practice. They usually have 13 or 14 two-hour practice sessions for June, then again for July.

“Kids have a high locus of control when it comes to monitoring their own progress and monitoring the problems they’re working on,” said Aaberg of these additional math practices.

John Mentgen also prepared extensively for Math Day. The senior competed on the Scottsbluff C1 Math Bowl team, which earned third place in the competitive division.

“I like to say a test is not easy or hard—it’s how well you’re prepared for it. I feel like my preparation was enough to where I performed as well as I could,” Mentgen said.

Mentgen intends to study computer engineering in college next fall with a focus on virtual reality technology. Computer engineering requires a comfortable relationship with mathematics.

“In engineering, you need to have that problem-solving mentality: What do I do when I don’t know what to do? Doing all this contest math really helps me prepare how to think when I don’t know what to do,” Mentgen said.

Math Club has also helped Heldt prepare for his future, as he plans to major in mathematics.

“Math Club has taught me the value of practice and putting all your chips into something you might not win,” Heldt added.

UNL Math Day provides unique opportunities for students from rural schools, like SHS, to expand their horizons.

“This is a very critical activity that we’re offering to kids. Get them on a campus, help them see that it’s nothing more than a bunch of brick buildings, and have them picture a future, a vision for themselves, where they’re going to class, accomplishing their degree, and getting a better life outcome because they’re getting that education,” Aaberg said. “This is about so much more than just UNL Math Day itself.”

Competitive math means more than simply winning or losing. Aaberg said he believes it not only helps his students grow as people and as mathematicians, but it also helps them develop a deeper understanding of the world.

“It’s important that we study the discipline in a way that appreciates its beauty, its ability to transcend our imagination to give us more powerful tools to perceive and explain the world around us,” Aaberg said.

Mentgen had practical and encouraging advice for any student with intentions to pursue competitive math.

“You’re going to fail a lot,” Mentgen said, “but the most important thing is to be able to dust yourself off and ask, ‘Well, what went wrong and how can I learn from this?’ It’s going to be a hard struggle sometimes, but just understand that that struggle in and of itself is valuable.”

The SHS Math Club put forth its best effort on Math Day, and the success exemplified the outcome of hard work and dedication. Aaberg said these opportunities allow students the chance to learn and personally see their growth as they improve from competition to competition.

“I love to see the progression that a student makes over the years,” Aaberg said. “They exit our program as competent young adults who have a quiet confidence because they have a lot of pride in the work they’ve done over the years.”

Learn more about Scottsbluff and its Math Day experience in this Scottsbluff Star-Herald story: