Friday, October 24, 2008

Contest Updates

This year I managed to organize our first ever Putnam team, and even got students together for practices. Unfortunately, the students dropped like flies. Two dropped after the first practice, and two more after the second. I ended with enough students to make a team, so we were going to be officially represented--but then one more student dropped at the last minute.

I enjoyed Putnam practice sessions, which I ran a bit like a Moore method class (with me in it). I didn't look up solutions to the problems; we just tackled what we could and tried to come up with ideas. It was interesting and moderately productive. (These are hard problems.) Unfortunately, two very strong math majors chose to participate because they are involved in too many other things. In the end, our Putnam team did not score any points, but our school does appear on the list of "Schools which took the Putnam exam", which I still think is cool. I also feel pretty good that I solved a few of the problems on the exam this year myself. (Did I mention these are hard problems?) Perhaps we will do better next year.

I also got together our department's "College Bowl" team, with significant help from another faculty member. We needed four players plus an alternate, and unfortunately we only had five people come to try out, but we did have some fairly good people. I had some schemes for this year, too. It basically tests how much useless trivia students have memorized, so I obtained for our team used copies of a great popular book on memory systems (to stuff pointless facts into their heads with) and a copy each of An Incomplete Education (full of pointless College-Bowl-style trivia to start stuffing). In the end, we did very respectably in our school; we almost made it to the finals.

I also had fun this year "consulting" with the programming contest team. The programming contests frequently involve some interesting mathematics, so I've been coming to practice sessions and helping them figure out how to tackle the mathy problems. The problems are often pretty cool. Between that and the Putnam, I enjoyed doing some occasional math last year. I also like working with the programming team because it lets the students see professors "bridging the gap" between math and computer science. For some reason, we seem to have a division between the math and computer science majors in the department, which is pretty weird, because there isn't much gap I've noticed among the professors.

So what new contests will the "I-don't-like-competition" guy find himself involved in? Funny you should ask; I actually thought about trying to get together a team for a mathematical modeling contest in the spring. Of course as with the Putnam, what I'm really interested in is getting together students to do some math, not really to compete. I didn't do it this year, but I'm looking into more information about mathematical modeling for next year.

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