St. Laurence student beats out 400,000 other students in online competition

By Collen Boyle Sharp
Special to The CS&T

UPPER DARBY – For James O’Shea, math has always added up. As winner of the First in MATH online program for the 2009-2010 school year, O’Shea, an eighth-grade student at St. Laurence School in Upper Darby, took top honors after out-calculating 400,000 other students in 44 states and seven countries.

“I completed thousands of problems,” said O’Shea, who has a passion for mathematics. “I really like doing calculations.”

O’Shea has participated in the online challenge for the past four years and has done notably well in the worldwide competition. He placed in the top 30 his first year then took third place in sixth grade and second place honors in seventh grade. {{more}}

First in the Philadelphia Archdiocese the past four years, O’Shea placed first overall this year, accumulating an astounding 42,000 points in the seven-month competition. By the close of the challenge on April 30 the honors student held a comfortable 4,000 point lead over his closest competitor.

“I was very excited when I won,” O’Shea said, “but I have to admit I was relieved when it was over.”

O’Shea said he spent about an hour each day doing calculations to reach different levels within the competition. “It was a lot of work but I know the repetition of solving numerous problems each day has really helped me to become stronger in my math skills.”

During the past school year, O’Shea was president of the St. Laurence student council, a forensics club member and a parish altar server. He also plays on two baseball teams. He said he looks forward to attending Devon Preparatory School as a freshman this fall; he has received a full four-year academic scholarship from the school.

First in MATH is an online program in which students challenge their math skills in games that include addition and other arithmetic, multi-step algebra, geometry, trigonometry and pre-calculus problems. It has been offered as an after-school incentive to the students of St. Laurence since 2005.

Ann Char, director of development for the school, said she is very encouraged by the results she has seen so far. “We have about 330 students participating in this after-school curriculum (from) first through eighth grade. Since our principal, Sister Helen Thomas, introduced the program at St. Laurence both overall school mathematics scores and Terra Nova test scores (a standardized achievement test) have continued to rise.”

The school ranks fifth in the nation overall in the math enrichment program, and had four other students besides O’Shea who were among the top 100 inspanidual players in the nation.

“We are not at all surprised that James won,” said St. Laurence honors math teacher Lisa Butchey. “He shows a lot of determination in everything he does. He knew he wanted to win and he worked really hard to reach that goal.” Butchey describes O’Shea, who also came in first place in the 2007-08 archdiocesan spelling bee, as an all around great student.

His mathematical accomplishment was acknowledged June 9 at a ceremony at the Four Seasons Hotel in Center City Philadelphia. Robert Sun, founder and CEO of the Suntex Corporation and developer of the First in MATH online competition, presented O’Shea with the National Star Award and an Apple iTouch for his efforts.

O’Shea’s parents were there as he accepted the award.

“My wife and I are so proud of James,” said his father, Jim. “He is a good student, a good brother, and we are very lucky because he is a really great kid.”

O’Shea, who graduated last week from St. Laurence, feels his enthusiasm for math will serve him well in the future. His long-term goal, he said, is to attend Princeton and to study medicine.

Colleen Boyle Sharp is a freelance writer and photographer, and a parishioner of St. Katherine of Siena in Philadelphia.