By Jennifer Von Ohlen
DASSEL, COKATO, MN Nathan Weckwerth, a senior at Dassel-Cokato High School, is currently competing for placement on the United States Mathematical Olympiad Team, where he would then be one of six to represent America in the International Olympiad competition.
The Olympiad is considered the biggest math competition available, where participants have to solve three proof problems within 4.5 hours. The competition lasts two days, with three problems assigned each day.
In order to qualify for the team, candidates have to complete a series of tests, starting with the America Math Competition exam, which has 75 multiple choice questions to solve in 75 minutes.
The top 5 percent of these test-takers then advance to another exam that has 15 questions to be completed in three hours. These two test scores are then added to determine the top 500 participants (250 from 11th and 12th graders, and 250 from those in 10th grade or under). These individuals then take the United States of America Mathematical Olympiad exam (those in 10th grade and under take the United States of America Junior Mathematical Olympiad), where about 40 to 50 people can then attend a month-long mathematical olympiad summer program in Pittsburgh, PA. Nathan completed this program last June.
At the end of the program, a selection test is taken to determine who gets to compete for a place on the US Olympiad team. Nathan qualified, and is now one of the 25 remaining olympiad competitors.
In order to make it to the final two-day determination exams, these competitors have to do well on the four selection tests leading up to it. Nathan completed the third exam Friday. The fourth test will take place in March.
If he makes the team, Nathan will travel to Rio de Janeiro this summer for the International Olympiad.
A gift with numbers
The first time Nathan’s mother, Melissa, knew her son was good with numbers happened when he was 4 years old.
He had come to eat lunch, when Melissa said, “You didn’t wash your hands.” Nathan replied that he had, but Melissa, still doubtful, instructed him to go back and wash his hands while counting to 20.
“He walked into the bathroom, and he turned the water on, and he said, ‘four, eight, 12, 16, 20. Kay, I did it, Mom.’”
For a 4-year-old [who could count by fours], I knew that was something,” remembered Melissa.
Even before this incident, Melissa and her husband knew Nathan liked numbers by his interest in creating calendars rather than coloring or cutting out pictures.
“I’d make calendars for him,” stated Melissa, “because he would want to know when are the Twins going to play again.” For her, this was the first inclination that Nathan had a unique interest in numbers, sequences, and the like.
It was not until sixth grade, however, that the depth of Nathan’s ability started to be fully realized. Sensing there was something different about Nathan, his sixth-grade math teacher, Beth Flick handed him an eighth-grade algebra exam one that high schoolers used to have to pass in order to graduate without any instruction on the material beforehand. He scored 38 out of 40.
“So, my husband and I came in, and we had a big meeting about how we can make it fit for him, or make it work for him,” said Melissa.
As a result, Nathan started teaching himself in seventh grade out of high school-level textbooks at the back of the classroom. By eighth grade, he had completed algebra 2 (which most students finish their sophomore year), and was traveling to the high school to attend math classes.
“It has been fun watching Nathan ‘do’ math,” stated high school math teacher Carlynn Lundeen, who first meet Nathan as an eighth-grader in her intro to stats class. “I really want to know how his brain works.”
By the end of ninth grade, Nathan had completed all of DC’s available math courses, and only had college calculus left to take.
Abiding with his parents wishes that he save that class for his junior year in order to stay on the DC campus instead of going PSEO Nathan continued his math education online.
Looking back, Melissa explained there would have been no advantage for Nathan to go PSEO anyway, since he will now be attending Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, MA, after graduation (which does not accept PSEO credits).
“I feel like I can learn much more quickly/easily from an online setting [anyway],” Nathan added. “I mean, there’s like tons of resources available online, and then you can just do your own thing instead of a set pace, a set time, schedule, and stuff.”
“So it was an accelerated math education,” Melissa continued, “but the high school was very good about allowing him to just do that. He was eating it up, and they let him eat it. I think that was good.”
In addition to his pursuit to be on the United States Mathematical Olympiad team, Nathan is also involved in sports, the fine arts, the National Honor Society, robotics, math league, and his church. He was recently named a Triple A recipient.
“I will miss Nathan a lot next year,” Lundeen said. “I don’t believe I will see another student like him before I retire. He is truly ‘one in a million,’ and not only for his mathematical skills. I look forward to hearing about his future accomplishments.”