Cliff Ishii

Cliff Ishii

The smell of burning erasers is in the air — it’s math season. The MATHCOUNTS program gives students the opportunity to work in teams, training for a shot at a national title. And according to the Emeritus Advisor to the program, it’s not unheard of for a self-coached team to make it to the final round.



MATHCOUNTS is a math encouragement program for middle school students. It wasn’t created to teach math, although we certainly do, but to encourage mathematics by having competitions.

The main attraction is the chance to work as part of a team. Four people comprise a team, and they compete in written math problems, some of which they do individually and some they actually do as a team. The teams train in November, December and January; we have created a workbook with sample problems so students can practice.

We have three levels of competition: regional, state and national. California, for example, has about 23 regional competitions each February. Approximately 10% of the winners from the regional competitions go on to the state competitions.

How did the program get started?

MATHCOUNTS is in its 16th year. It began with a group of engineers in Alabama who had done something like the MATHCOUNTS program. They did a pilot program in Florida. Then the National Society of Professional Engineers took it nationwide. Today, we have somewhere between 80,000 and 100,000 students participating.

Why is industry so supportive of MATHCOUNTS?

Because they know firsthand that it’s almost impossible to find technical people right now to fill job vacancies. In technical fields like science and engineering, if students don’t decide in junior high that’s what they want to do, they’ll be too far behind in the math by the time they are in high school. It’s impossible for them to catch up.

How do you work with teachers?

The national organization has a Web site* where teachers can ask for help. A lot of my effort is to try to get engineers from industry to take time off from work and go to the schools and help coach teachers.

We call the teachers ‘coaches’, because they’re actually coaching a team. I recall a teacher who was basically a gym teacher, swimming coach. Because of the lack of qualified math teachers, the principal came up to him and said, “Guess what, you’re the new math teacher.”

At the same time he also found out about MATHCOUNTS and so he got our handbooks and outlines. It helped him get through the first year. He said, “I don’t know a whole lot about teaching math, but I sure know how to coach. And with MATHCOUNTS, I know how to prepare a team for competition.”

You’re an engineer – what has inspired you personally to put so much energy into this program over the last 15 years?

The students. And then secondly, the teachers. You see the excitement and the changes and the impact MATHCOUNTS has on kids’ lives.

I was at a state competition one year, and four junior high students came up to me, and they said “We want to thank you for Math Counts.” I said, “You’re welcome. Why?”

They said, “Our teacher showed us this MATHCOUNTS workbook, and said if you guys want to do this you can.” These kids basically coached themselves. They were from somewhere in the Sierra Nevadas — Gold Country, California — and they had coached themselves, won the region and earned the right to come to State.

I remember a student from Northern California. He was one of four Junior High students who went to the competition without any parents, without any teacher, without any adult supervision, and they qualified to be on the national team representing California. I got to call his teacher and his mom and dad at home to tell them “Your son just won a free trip to Washington D.C. to represent California’s MATHCOUNTS.”

So even if the parents don’t give a hoot, and the teachers don’t give a hoot, the students do give a hoot. That’s what I love about the program. I tell the teachers: Don’t say no for your students. If the students say no, they don’t want to do it, I can accept that, but don’t answer for them.

Do many of the MATHCOUNTS students become professional engineers?

There’s no way to really know, since they’re in middle school when they do the competitions. But sometimes I do get feedback from parents or the students themselves that they are thinking about going into engineering.

In MATHCOUNTS we don’t say, “OK kids, you’ve got to become engineers.” We just say, “Hi, I’m an engineer.” That’s all the sales talk we do. They see a person who is an engineer, they start thinking about it. You don’t have to twist their arms.

If there are engineers that want to get involved, how would they contact you?

Send me email at

Thank you.

You’re welcome.




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