Calculus exam

Northeastern students prepare for Saturday’s Putnam math competition

On Wednesday evenings, Northeastern mathematics professor Evan Dummit walks into Lake Hall with a few boxes of hot pizza. Dummit sits at the front of a classroom as a team of about a dozen students silently works on math practice problems. The students occasionally pause to have a quick conversation, grab a slice of pizza, or ask Dummit for a hint. The weekly practices are all for this Saturday’s national Putnam Mathematical Competition.

The competition is notoriously difficult and grueling. Students have six hours to solve six increasingly tricky problems. Last year, Northeastern had its best showing yet, landing in the top 35 of the 450 registered university teams. But Dummit doesn’t want students to focus on the scores: The competition is simply an opportunity to have fun learning math (and eat free pizza).

The contest, born out of an informal math competition between Harvard and the U.S. Military Academy in 1933, is now run by the Mathematical Association of America and attracts over four thousand students yearly. The problems often require elegant and clever solutions, and once publicly released, problems are analyzed by mathematicians and math enthusiasts worldwide in papers, lectures, blog posts, and YouTube videos.

Northeastern mathematics students Devin Brown and Toby Busick-Warner regularly attend the Wednesday practices and plan on taking the Putnam this Saturday. Both first got involved in competitive math in high school — like many other Putnam-takers.

Brown hopes to perform even better than last year, with more classes and practices under his belt. “There’s a distinction between finding the answer and rigorously proving it as correct,” he said.

Busick-Warner competed in county- and state-level math competitions in high school and joined the Northeastern Putnam team soon after starting college this fall. “I had heard a lot about the Putnam on YouTube,” he said. Busick-Warner’s goal is to solve at least one problem on this year’s Putnam — an above-average feat. The median score on the test is often zero points out of 120. Since the Putnam’s inception, only five students have achieved perfect scores.

“These are the top math students in all departments across the country, and among those students, half of them get a zero total — no points on any problem. It’s very unforgiving,” Dummit said. “If you’re a student and you get two points on the Putnam, you tell other math majors around the country, ‘I got two points on the Putnam this year!’ and they’ll be like, ‘Wow! That’s pretty good!’”

Dummit competed in plenty of high school math competitions and took the Putnam four times during undergrad at Caltech, earning an honorable mention twice. Shortly after joining Northeastern, he heard about the university’s Putnam team and stopped by a practice to check it out. Dummit has coached the team for the three years since then, and he has volunteered for the fun yet demanding task of grading the Putnam for the past two years.

Any students interested in joining the Northeastern Putnam team — or would just like to practice interesting math problems while eating pizza — can email Dummit at [email protected].

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