Undergrad Trio Fares Well In National Math Contest

SOCORRO, N.M. March 31, 2011 – A team of New Mexico Tech undergraduate students earned a top 100 ranking in the 71st annual William Lowell Putnam Mathematical Competition held on December 4, 2010.  There were a total of 4,296 contestants from 546 institutions in the competition.

The New Mexico Tech team of Henry Horton, Aaron Meurer and Jason Michnovicz finished 89th. The faculty supervisor was associate professor of math Dr. Oleg Makhnin.

“This is the best we’ve done so far,” Makhnin said. “It’s a very difficult exam. Usually places like Harvard, MIT and Cal Tech are competing for the top 10 spots. For us, we don’t have that many math majors, so [finishing 89th] is a pretty great accomplishment.”

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The New Mexico Tech team that competed in the Putnam Math Competition in 2010. Jason Michnovicz (from left), Henry Horton and Aaron Meurer.

Examples of the Putnam Math problems:

Problem B1:

“Is there an infinite sequence of real numbers a1, a2, a3, … such that a1^m + a2^m + a3^m + … = m for every positive integer m?"

For all the test problems, click here

As faculty advisor, Makhnin met with students a handful of times during the fall semester to hold practice sessions. About 10 students attended the sessions, but only Horton, Meurer and Michnovicz competed.

The competition organizers mail a packet of test problems to each participating university. The faculty advisor keeps the problems sealed until the day of the competition. Students work in two sessions, solving six problems in the morning and six in the afternoon. Makhnin then collects their answers and mails them back to the competition organizers.

“They have 12 problems that are extra hard,” Makhnin said. “They aren’t text book problems. They require ingenuity to answer. It’s difficult to solve even one problem.”

Meurer and Horton are math majors. Michnovicz is majoring in math and electrical engineering. Meurer competed in the event in 2009 as well. All three are seniors. Horton went to high school in Omaha, Neb. Meurer and Michnovicz are from Albuquerque; Meurer graduated from Cibola High and Michnovicz was home-schooled.

“Supposedly you only need freshman level math courses to do the problems, but actually, the more math you have the better you do,” Meurer said.

In 2009, only nine individuals out of 3,120 who competed scored 66 percent or greater on the test. The 100th place individual scored less than 33 percent. Michnovicz said he recommends the competition to anyone interested in abstract math.

“The material isn’t that advanced, but they are very difficult problems,” he said. “And they are picky about constructing a proof.”

Most of the 12 problems are pure mathematical proofs. Michnovicz said problems included proofs from number theory, analysis and combinatorics. For example, participants were asked to prove the convergence of a sequence, find the set of all functions satisfying a given condition, and solve other similar problems.

“The contest requires thinking on your feet because they are problems you’ve never seen before,” Michnovicz said. “It’s expected that you won’t do exceedingly well because it’s challenging, but it’s worth the experience.”


– NMT –

By Thomas Guengerich/New Mexico Tech