When asked Thursday mid-morning if he was glad he came to the FHSU High School Math Relays for the first time, 16-year-old Braden Schulte, of Ellsworth, didn’t have an immediate answer.

Classmate Rachel Sebesta leaned in and prompted, “You get to miss Mrs. Johnson’s math class.”

“Yes,” Schulte said. “I get to miss my math teacher’s class, and I don’t have to make anything up for it. I don’t have to do homework for the day.”

He and the other Ellsworth students in the little group in the hallway laughed.

“For sure,” jumped in senior Hayden Rogers, adding “and we get Taco Shop.”

“Yeah, Taco Shop!” they all agreed.

Lunch on their own in Hays is just one highlight for the more than 600 students from 44 schools who attended the 41st annual Fort Hays State University Math Relays, said Billie Cox, math teacher at Rock Hills in Mankato, the consolidated high school for Jewell County.

The event opens the world to high school students, showing them there is more to learn, Cox said.

“At a 1A school you can be the big fish in a small pond and you start to think, ‘Oh, I know how to do that.’ You come here, and the freshmen are taking the same test as the seniors are, so they start to see math that they haven’t been exposed to yet,” she said. “And any time you can get a high-school kid on a college campus is good, as they start thinking about the next step in their education.”

Cox brought 14 students to the relays. Because space in the union is limited, each school selects no more than 18 students to come. Her students think of it as an honor, she said.

“I think they like the idea of being around other kids who have the same interest,” Cox said. “Some of our kids who come here maybe don’t participate in athletics. This is somewhere they can kind of shine and be the star of the team. And they do see a lot of their friends from other schools here.”

The half-day of relays consists of six different tests, 20 minutes each, broken into algebra, geometry, trigonometry, word problems, numbers sense without a calculator, and a speed test with a calculator, said Bill Weber, an FHSU assistant professor of math.

Sitting elbow to elbow at long tables in the union’s ballroom and the Black and Gold Room on Thursday, the students filled in test sheets with No. 2 pencils, competing either as individuals or as a team of three. Thanks to automated grading software and a Scantron scoring machine, results were being posted in a matter of a half-hour.

As is done every year, gold, silver and bronze medals were to be awarded after lunch for top scorers in each grade, freshman through senior, based on school size from 1A to 6A, for both team and individual winners. The top three schools each take home a plaque, said Weber, who organizes the event.

FHSU math faculty write the tests, starting in September, two faculty members per test, checking each answer key to make sure they are correct, he said. There are purposely some really tough questions, said Weber, and students don’t have to work the problems in order.

“We make the test too long on purpose," he said. "We don’t want there to be any ties at the top. It’s just easier if there’s 50 questions and people are typically getting only 25 or 30 done, then it’s easier to separate the ties out at the top.”

FHSU math classes were canceled for the day so students and faculty could help with the relays.

Mankato’s Cox has been bringing kids for 20 years and sees it make a difference.

“I have a couple kids in the past that were very quiet, who were maybe loners, and on this trip is where they started talking to their classmates,” Cox said. “They start opening up because they see that they fit into this group of kids, and they have confidence in this area.”

Thursday was the first time at the relays for 15-year-old Travis Popp, Haven, a freshman at 3A Haven High School. He’s always been pretty good at math, he said, and took high school math as an eighth grader. By mid-morning he’d taken two tests.

“It was difficult, but it wasn’t too bad,” he said. His goal was to at least place. “It’s fun being competitive against other people ... and when you finish taking the test and you know you did good, that’s fun.”

Vicki Galloway, gifted facilitator for Haven, said she has been bringing kids to the relays for 15 years.

Senior Kaylie Kincaid, 17, came this year for the fourth time.

Haven always places in the top three in at least one team event, Kincaid said. She is on a team this year and likes that better than individual competition. If a team member gets stuck on a problem, another can take a crack at it.

She’s known she was good at math since second grade, when she was doing fifth-grade math.

“I enjoy doing math, just because everything has an answer, it all makes sense,” Kincaid said, and algebra is her favorite. “I’m not the biggest fan of geometry, just because there are so many formulas.”

One thing about the relays, Kincaid likes meeting new people, and seeing friends.

“I think it’s a nice way to get out of school and do something I enjoy,” she said. “My best friends also come here with me, because we all kind of do math, so it’s kind of nice to spend a day with them. It’s a fun experience here, getting to walk around campus.”

It has gotten easier every year, so she helps the students coming for the first time.

“We try to tell them to keep calm and to go through the test and find the easiest ones first,” she said. “Then go back and start working on ones that you think you can work out and that you know the formulas to.”

Weber, a math education graduate of Fort Hays, brought his own students to the math relays when he was a high school teacher at Colby. Now in his 16th year at Fort Hays, he remembers when there were 1,600 to 1,700 students coming, some schools bringing as many as 50 kids each. The relays were scaled back in the late 1990s after the union was remodeled.

“A side effect is that it’s become more competitive,” Weber said. “The schools really try to bring the best of the best.”

Ellsworth’s Sebesta, 17, a junior, was at the relay for the third time this year. At 11:30 a.m., she already was happy with one team result.

“We placed second overall in the junior’s division for numbers sense,” she said. “I like winning, personally. And it’s just great getting out of school.”