Omaha – For collegiate math scholars, the first Saturday in December means one thing: the annual William Lowell Putnam Mathematical Competition.
For a talented group of students at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, that date—and the competition—also means success.
UNO’s 2013 Putnam team placed 49th out of 557 competing institutions from across the United States and Canada, good enough to be among the top 10 percent of participating North American schools.
The result is the school’s best finish ever in the Putnam Competition, besting its previous high finish of 67th (out of 476) in 2002.
“This is huge,” said Dr. Griff Elder, the Maurice and Nancy Lipton Professor of Mathematics at UNO. “There is a tremendous amount of street credibility that comes with such a high finish.
“UNO is in the midst of a mathematical surge, and it shows with our graduates. Recent students have headed to schools like Cornell for a Ph.D. and have accepted jobs at Google and the like.”
This year’s competitors include Teng Li, Brad Horner, Isaac Anderson, Emily Divis, Brandon Kirk, Nathan Cornelius and Harrison LeFrois. Individually, Li placed in the top 10 percent of North America and Horner in the top 15 percent. Anderson, Divis and Kirk—a freshman—placed in the top third of the competition.
The prestigious Putnam Competition, held annually for the top undergraduate mathematics students in the U.S. and Canada, began officially in 1938 but has origins as far back as 1933 when 10 students from Harvard competed against 10 students from the United States Military Academy at West Point.
The 1938 Putnam Competition consisted of 163 individuals on 42 teams. By 2013, the event has grown to include more than 4,000 university students from more than 500 universities and colleges across the U.S. and Canada.
Sponsored by the Mathematical Association of America, the competition has counted many distinguished mathematicians and scientists among its participants over the years, including Nobel Prize winner John Nash, noted for his work in game theory and differential equations and the subject of the 2001 Hollywood film “A Beautiful Mind.”
The competition consists of two, three-hour sessions of six math problems, which are graded on a scale of 0-10 points. Competitors must show the steps in their work to justify an answer and receive full credit, and partial credit may be given only when showing significant progress towards the solution.
Dr. Elder helped supervise a Putnam study group in the fall, which met every Friday afternoon. The group used the Friday sessions to solve practice problems in a relaxed atmosphere and learn from their work as a group.
“Math, believe it or not, is actually quite social,” Elder said.
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