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On Dec. 4, about two dozen Cal Poly students will attempt to solve complex problems in the William Lowell Putnam Mathematical Competition.

The competition is considered one of the most prestigious math contests of the year. More than 500 schools from the United States and Canada participate and about 3,500 students compete every year, said Jonathan Shapiro, professor of mathematics.

“For math students around the country, this is the big competition every year,” Shapiro said. “It is a chance for them to show their talents at problem solving.”

The competition consists of 12 questions and contestants have six hours to solve as many as they can. The questions come from an area of math called pure math, said Kevin Lamb, a contestant and mathematics senior.

“Pure math is all about abstract thought and problem solving,” Lamb said. “You are not asked to prove theorems, but each problem requires a certain amount of creativity. You need to have good visualization skills to do well in the competition.”

This kind of thought is not something that comes easily to many students since it is not taught in the general education system, said Casey Kelleher, a contestant and mathematics junior.

“The problems are not the usual problems students are used to,” Kelleher said. “They give you no hint on what direction to take, and they are usually across the board in terms of mathematics. This makes the exam very hard to do.”

The competition is so difficult that the top scorers are considered to be some of the brightest math students in the country. A good performance in the competition earns a student a great deal of prestige, and catches the attention of graduate schools, said Morgan Sherman, assistant professor of mathematics.

The challenge the competition poses to the participants is so great that of 120 possible points on the exam, more than half the competitors get a zero, Sherman said.

“The problems are each scored from zero to 10,” Sherman said. “To get even a point on any problem, you have to make substantial progress. To get a 10, you need to solve the problem completely and correctly.”

Cal Poly has done well in the competition in the past, especially for the size of the university, Shapiro said. Two years ago, Cal Poly placed 74th out of roughly 500 schools, and had an average score of about six.

To prepare for the rigors of the exam, students can take a two-unit course during the fall quarter, MATH 370 — Putnam exam seminar. Students do practice problems in the course and work as a team to solve them, said Lawrence Sze, associate professor of mathematics and coach of the Cal Poly team.

“We practice problems together and try to work together to prepare for the exam,” Sze said. “It’s actually a lot of fun for us.”

Many students who take the exam actually choose to do so because of the social aspect, Sze said.

“It’s fun for certain kinds of people to sit down and try to solve problems,” Sze said. “You get to hang out with a bunch of students who are as geeky as you are.”

The best individual performers in the competition win cash prizes. The top five scorers — named Putnam Fellows — are awarded $2,500. One of the five receives the William Lowell Putnam Prize Scholarship, a $12,000 scholarship and tuition for graduate school at Harvard University, Shapiro said.

The top two performers for Cal Poly receive the Ralph E. Weston Memorial Award at the end of the year. The given amount varies from year to year, but it is usually between $200 and $300, said Cami Reece, administrative coordinator for the mathematics department.

The cash prizes are not the reason most participants from Cal Poly choose to compete, Lamb said.

“I am participating more as a personal challenge than anything, because I enjoy the shear toughness of the competition,” Lamb said. “If I score well, so be it, but I take the test to see how my math maturity stacks up against the best in the nation.”

This article was written by Russell Peterson

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