After months of solving practice problems and honing their numerical skills, junior high students at two New Haven middle schools earned top marks at a statewide math competition earlier this month.

Two New Haven eighth graders, Patrick Hulin of Hopkins School and Jonathan Chien of Wintergreen Interdistrict Magnet School, have won two of the top four slots in Connecticut’s Mathcounts competition and will go on to represent Connecticut at the national level.

The Connecticut competition took place in Hartford on March 11, with more than 180 students who had won regional competitions participating. Hulin won first place statewide, as did the entire team from Hopkins, while Chien placed third.

Mathcounts is a program that uses challenging math problems to help develop the analytical and innovative thinking skills of middle school students.

Caleb McArthur, a Hopkins math teacher and the coach for the school’s team, said Mathcounts is a rigorous competition that includes three different rounds designed to stress different problem-solving skills, such as efficiency, abstract thinking and group communication.

McArthur said the Hopkins team practiced twice a week from September until the state competition in March. In addition to the two weekly hours of school practice, he said students are encouraged to spend time at home doing problems on their own.

“There is a healthy competitive atmosphere necessary to prepare the students for the pressure of national competitions, but I try to spend considerable time focusing on the team round component,” McArthur said.

Hopkins’ star performer at the competition was first-place winner Patrick Hulin, an eighth-grader who is currently taking an accelerated 10th-grade math class. After placing 11th in the state Mathcounts competition last year, Hulin was determined to place in the top four this year so that he could qualify for the national competition, McArthur said.

“Patrick has great intuition and insight when it comes to solving math problems,” McArthur said. “His ability to critically examine his own thinking has allowed him to avoid careless errors and to help the team solve some of the most difficult problems on the team round.”

Hopkins Dean of Academics and teacher Rosemary Benedict, who taught Hulin last year in geometry, said Hulin has a remarkable mind for mathematics.

“What truly makes him so successful is his passion for mathematics: he’s like a sponge, always questioning and probing deeper,” Benedict said.

Jonathan Chien, an eighth-grader from Wintergreen Interdistrict Magnet School who placed third overall in the state, was described by his teachers as a dedicated math student taking an advanced geometry course this year. Chien competed in the state competition last year as well, although this is the first time a student from his school has qualified for nationals.

Students on the WIMS Mathcounts team practiced with math teacher and coach Kathi Reid once a week for the competition.

“This is an outstanding accomplishment for Jonathan, his family and his school that we are all very excited about,” Reid said.

Now, the top four students in the state is preparing to represent Connecticut at the national competition under the leadership of Hopkins coach McArthur. The Connecticut team currently practices together one evening each week for 90 minutes, working on team problems and improving their speed. McArthur said team communication and efficiency are the biggest hurdles to overcome for nationals.

“At that level, most of the students can correctly solve most, if not all, of the problems if given enough time,” he said. “Thus speed becomes the determining factor.”

Even though the national competition is challenging and often aggressive, those who have participated in the past said Mathcounts is a great, exciting organization for students.

Former national Mathcounts competitor Josh Zelinsky ’07, a New Haven native, said he owes a lot to his involvement in the program. Like Hulin, Zelinsky placed first in Connecticut in his eighth-grade year and went to the national competition.

“I’m currently a math major, and Mathcounts played a large role in developing my long-term interest in mathematics,” he said.

Benedict, who used to coach Mathcounts at Hopkins, said that although it is stressful for the kids, the competition is also a lot of fun.

“Nationals is an amazing experience,” she said. “Imagine adolescents from all of the 50 states and Puerto Rico who all love math getting together in the nation’s capital.”

The national competition will take place in Arlington, Va., on May 9-11.