FPU students make math their field of competition

By wayne.steffen on December 5, 2017 @ 2:03pm

Call them the calculating Sunbirds!

Eight students sacrificed a sunny Saturday for love of game—math game—December 2 to compete in the annual Putnam Competition sponsored by the Mathematical Association of America. Begun in 1938, the contest is called “the preeminent mathematics competition for undergraduate college students in the United States and Canada.” (maa.org/math-competitions/putnam-competition)

How challenging are the 12 problems that kept participants busy for two sessions, from 8:00-11:00 a.m. and 1:00-4:00 p.m.? “In many years, the difficulty of the exam has meant the median performance (nationwide) is 0 points, so students who manage to score even a single point are commended,” said Shawn Wirts, Ph.D., assistant professor of mathematics and local event organizer.

The competition is also world-class: the 2016 winning teams were from Carnegie Mellon University, Princeton University, Harvard University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Stanford University, according to Wirts. Students in all disciplines are welcome. All FPU participants were math or math education majors except for one majoring in biology with a human health emphasis.

Suiting up to represent FPU were: Benjamin Borges, senior; Elizabeth Carr, senior; Sam Delk, junior; Marshall Dinkins, junior; Jonathan Jaime-Castillo, senior; Kelsey Lowrey, sophomore; Grace Robinson, junior; and Adam Trove, senior. Fueled by doughnuts and Subway sandwiches provided by the math department, the group met in AIMS Hall of Mathematics & Science on the main FPU campus, 1717 S. Chestnut Ave., Fresno. Each participating college or university may field a team of three, and other students compete individually. Problems were received and results submitted by mail. No stadium required. Winners will be announced in several weeks.

“Merely being exposed to something far more challenging than traditional mathematics coursework offers students an opportunity to grow and mature their perspective on mathematics,” Wirts said. “When I was a student, it was a humbling experience, but it also was a chance to face something beyond my ability and see how far I could go, which in itself brought a certain amount of satisfaction.”

Student participants agreed. “It was an exciting experience to think that we were joining with students all over the nation to complete this difficult set of problems. It was rewarding to be able to apply what we have learned during class, and it is very encouraging to see multiple students wanting to participate and engage with the challenging material that exists in the math world,” Lowrey said.

"The challenge of the exam was unparalleled, and it forced me to exercise not only my critical thinking skills, but also my highest level of creativity. As such, I found the exam to be an exciting experience that motivates me to continue to grow in academic excellence alongside my peers. I think it is essential to provide this sort of opportunity to students at Fresno Pacific and to put them on the same playing field alongside the largest, most prestigious universities in the nation,” Dinkins said.

Photo (left to right): Wirts, Jaime-Castillo, Carr, Borges, Robinson, Dinkins, Lowrey, Delk and Trove.