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AlumNews: Talon Articles

Students place high in national mathematics contest

Monday, April 7, 2008  
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By Curtis Elmore

Seniors Jason Cain and Nicklaus Little ranked in the top 502 of 3,753 participants in the William Lowell Putnam Mathematics Competition in December.

"It is a competition, involving undergraduates in the U.S. and Canada," professor of Mathematics and Computer Science Don Leftwich said. "We competed against large and small universities, but everyone competed at the same level."

The Putnam Exam is sponsored by the Mathematics Association of America.

The test is six hours long and involves 12 problems, worth ten points each.

"I call it the world's hardest test.  Every year, about one third of people who take the test score zero," Leftwich said. "The best math students across the country take the test and don't score anything."

Cain ranked 502 and Little ranked 221 in the competition.

"I first heard about the Putnam Exam in high school. I was a member of our math club, and our teacher told me about it," Little said. "I remembered it when Mr. Leftwich mentioned it in class, and I've taken it the past three years."

Little said the questions are geared toward heavy problem solving and are stated in as little as one or two sentences.

The questions are understandable, but there are many steps to get to the solution.

"Some of the hardest problems can be so simply stated," Little said. "The questions usually take a couple of hours a piece and there is some notation that takes getting used to, but I haven't had an actual math class since freshman year."

Because all undergraduates in the U.S. and Canada are eligible to take the exam, the test is administered by the faculty of the participant's respective university.

"There is really no way to prepare. You just have to be good at mathematics and a good problem solver," Leftwich said. "Some universities put a lot into it, but our students just have to learn from the courses they take and their ability to solve problems."

The test is very prestigious, so the students that score well are favored for acceptance into Graduate schools, scholarships and fellowships.

"Math is like a hobby I like to do. I'm a computer engineering major, so I didn't expect to do so well that it played a huge part on getting hired somewhere," Little said.  "I just wanted to take it to see what I could do." 

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