Montana State University

MSU team competes in prestigious, rigorous math exam

April 8, 2014 -- MSU News Service

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Tel: (406) 994-4571
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BOZEMAN -- A team of Montana State University students ranked in the top 11 percent of a math competition believed to be the most prestigious and one of the most difficult in the world.

MSU’s team finished 48th out of 430 teams that competed in the latest William Lowell Putnam Mathematical Competition. The written exam was held the first week of December, and results were released this spring.

“This year, our team might have had its highest ranking ever, but every year since 2009, we did really well,” said local coordinator Lukas Geyer, who took over that year and didn’t have earlier data. Geyer is a faculty member in MSU’s Department of Mathematical Sciences.

This year’s Putnam competition had 4,113 contestants from the United States and Canada.  The seven participants from MSU were Joe Bretz, a junior from Billings; Gaoyang Fan, a senior from Shanxi, China; Brett Green, a senior from Hayden, Idaho;  Devin Hansen, a senior from Bozeman;  Matt Meerdink, a senior from Federal Way, Wash.; Patrick Murphy, a senior from Bozeman; and Colt Smith, a freshman from Helena.

Geyer said the exam is conducted at the home institutions of student competitors. In late November, he receives an envelope with all the problem sets. On the day of the competition, he hands the students six problems in the morning and another six in the afternoon.  They have three hours to solve each set and can only use pencil and paper. At the end of the day, Geyer collects all the exams and sends them to the Putnam organizers to grade.

The exams are so difficult that every year, more than half of the competitors earn fewer than two points out of a possible 120, Geyer said. Since each problem is worth 10 points, that means they were unable to solve even one problem correctly.

The Putnam exam is administered by the Mathematical Association of America.

Evelyn Boswell, (406) 994-5135 or evelynb@montana.edu