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How many palindromic numbers are there between 1 and 10,000?

Don’t know? Don’t feel bad. Six of the brightest math minds at Lincoln’s high schools couldn’t figure out that one Thursday.

But they figured out plenty of other math problems that would have stymied some of the smartest mathematicians during the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s 23rd annual Math Day.

Like this one: On May 1, April puts $1 in the bank. Every day, she puts in a penny more than the day before. When will she first have at least $10?

“May 10,” Ingrid Zhang said, answering correctly and helping her Lincoln East High School team advance in the team math bowl competition.

Nearly 1,400 high school students representing nearly 100 schools across the state competed for the chance at scholarships and team trophies. All of the students took the Probe I test, a one-hour, multiple-choice exam.

The top 50 scorers on that exam then took the Probe II exam, a one-hour essay exam that emphasizes knowledge, depth of understanding and written expression. The 10 students with the highest combined scores on the two exams were awarded scholarships to UNL totaling $34,000.

“It’s just a cool opportunity for students who love math to get together and be competitive,” said Lindsay Augustyn, spokeswoman for the UNL Center for Science, Mathematics and Computer Education.

By noon Thursday, Lincoln East was on its way to competing for the Class A math bowl trophy, having beaten Omaha’s Creighton Prep and the Lincoln Science Focus Program.

Leona Penner, a retired East High and Lux Middle schools math teacher, said she prepared her team in much the same way she has for the past dozen or so years. They competed in quiz bowls and studied questions and answers from past Math Day probe exams.

“I am a competitive person, and I really like and do well on things like this,” said Akshay Rajagopal, a Lincoln East junior.

He’s not kidding. In 2008, Rajagopal won the National Geographic Bee.

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The Math Day competition teaches students to think outside the box on math questions, said Trip Ogden, a junior in the Lincoln Science Focus Program.

Penner said the competition is as mentally demanding as sports are physically demanding.

“If you play basketball all day, you expect to be tired,” she said. “If you’re using your brain all day, that’s also exhausting.”

Zhang, who scored the highest on the Probe I exam Thursday, said she enjoys most getting to meet other students who love math.

"You get to mingle with all the math nerds," she said.

By the way, the answer to that first question is 197, and a palindrome is a word, sentence or number that reads the same backward as forward, such as madam and 1221.

But maybe you already knew that.

Reach Kevin Abourezk at 402-473-7225 or kabourezk@journalstar.com.

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I'm a Journal Star night editor and father of five.

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