Apr 292003
Authors: Jodi Friedman

The CSU Math Team received outstanding scores in a North American competition finishing in the top 3 percent and being ranked the second highest of any public university, behind University of California at Berkeley.

In December, six CSU students took the William Lowell Putnam Mathematical Competition. The competition was an exam for college students consisting of 12 problems worth ten points each. Students were given six hours (broken up in two separate three-hour sessions) to solve the questions.

Each question tested a student’s knowledge and creativity, according to a press release. Contestants were expected to be familiar with undergraduate-level math theories and sophisticated math that exceeds all minimal courses, according to the competition’s Web site.

This year’s competition had 3,349 participants. Students received team rankings and individual rankings. Of the six students who took in the exam from CSU, three finished in the top ten-percent for individual scores. John Batchelder, a former CSU student, ranked 99 (top 3-percent), Manfred Georg, a senior math major, placed 222 (top 7-percent) and Travis King, a senior math major, ranked 246 (top 8-percent.)

King expected to do well, he said. He is confident in his consistent improvement on proofs and overall knowledge.

“The thing that I’m proudest of is how our three-person team did,” he said. “It was great having people like John and Manfred to work with because they’re also very intelligent and good at math.”

King looks forward to continue his improvement next year as well.

“Most of the preparation is more in just having a large amount of knowledge to pull from that you can’t get by cramming,” he said.

This competition has a reputation of being incredibly difficult and challenging.

“This is an exam to test the very best undergraduate students,” said Robert Liebler, a professor and the math department. “There is nothing routine about it.”

The competition is voluntary. Many schools do not take the exam because they have no students who could perform well, Liebler said. The CSU team finished 12th out of 476 teams.

“This exam is used to recruit (math students),” Liebler said. “These three students will be heavily recruited.”

Math professors sometimes train students before the test on how to approach the questions. Leibler said the problems are so challenging that many contestants will read the first question and be so stumped that he or she will not know where to begin.

“There are things we do that stimulate and encourage students,” said Liebler, who has coached for the exam in the past. Liebler said that the coaches feel good if their team members can even complete half of the questions.

“This is an exercise in humility,” Liebler said.

This is the second time CSU has performed spectacularly well in the past five years, Liebler said.

Alexander Hulpke, an assistant professor in the math department, supervised the examination this year. He held preparation courses every week where students studied questions from previous exams.

“I thought they would have done reasonably well but to get that high is really great,” Hulpke said. “They scored as well as places no one would dare compare us with, like Stanford and Harvard.”

He said CSU’s strong finish indicates excellence in its student, as well as the quality of the math department.

“This is equivalent to a basketball team making the “Sweet Sixteen” in the NCAA tournament,” Hulpke said.

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