When 242 Florida middle school students recently gathered on center court at T.D. Waterhouse Center in Orlando for the MATHCOUNTS State Tournament, they helped inaugurate a new high-tech answering system created for the competition with assistance from the Space Alliance Technology Outreach Program (SATOP).

The MATHCOUNTS program, which is mentored by the Florida Engineering Society and sponsored nationally by NASA, for years used a hard-wired system to record students’ response times during the “ciphering round” of tournaments. The system was difficult and time consuming to install, failure-prone due to age, and with bundles of wires running to a central computer, a safety hazard.

“The old devices were put together in the late 1980s and early 1990s and had become obsolete and unreliable,” said Glenn E. Forrest, P.E., Vice-Chairman of The State MATHCOUNTS committee. “We tried to solve the problem ourselves, but most of us are civil engineers and we needed experts in the fields of electronics and wireless technology.”

Forrest began looking into purchasing a new wireless system in 2002. “We were looking for a wireless device that could sense and list, in chronological order, electronic responses from competing mathletes,” he said. “We thought there might be systems like those used on games shows that could be adapted to our needs, but these were very expensive and out of our reach financially.”

Then Forrest heard about SATOP from a fellow member of the Toastmasters Club who works at Boeing, a SATOP Platinum Alliance Partner. Once Forrest’s Request for Technical Assistance (RTA) was accepted, SATOP enlisted Mike Bauman to work on
the MATHCOUNTS technical challenge.

Bauman is a senior network engineer with Dynacs Inc., a SATOP Alliance Partner located at the Kennedy Space Center. He discovered that there was no commercially available system that did what the MATHCOUNTS competition required. “There were audience voting systems, but they could not distinguish differences in response time. They just tallied responses,” Bauman said.

As he continued to research the problem, Bauman found security systems that he thought could be adapted for MATHCOUNT’s use. He also located a company – Dakota Security Systems in Sioux Falls, South Dakota – that was willing to create a customized solution for the math tournament.

After working closely with Forrest for several months on the design of the ciphering device, Dakota Security Systems delivered the new MATHCOUNTS system in November 2002. The MATHCOUNTS competition in Orlando on March 21 was
the first opportunity to try out the new system in a state tournament.
For the volunteers who set up the new ciphering system, the experience was vastly different from previous years. “Our volunteer force was appreciative many times over because the set-up time for the new device is about 15 minutes, compared to two or three hours with the old, hard-wired system,” Forrest said.

Forrest said that the new wireless system brings MATHCOUNTS into the 21st century, which should help the program attract more participants. “The mission of MATHCOUNTS is to increase enthusiasm for mathematics in the middle school grades,” he said. “Of course, students are very concerned about being cool, so giving them a high-tech answering system inspired by the space program definitely increases our ‘cool’
factor. And for that we have SATOP and Mike Bauman to thank.”