Longwood students place highly in prestigious national mathematics competition

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A team of Longwood University students placed in the top 16 percent of what is considered the the most prestigious university-level mathematics competition in the world during the 2012-13 academic year.

The team of Jeff Anway, Matt Jobrack and Nick Pastore placed 91st among the 578 teams in the 2012 William Lowell Putnam Mathematical Competition, held in December 2012 and administered by the Mathematical Association of America. The annual competition, known commonly as the Putnam exam and begun in 1938, is open to undergraduate college students in the United States and Canada. It consists of 12 difficult problems administered over two three-hour sessions on the first Saturday every December.

“Many consider this the toughest math exam,” said Dr. Thomas Wears, assistant professor of mathematics, one of several members of the Department of Mathematics and Computer Science who coached the students who competed. “It’s very tough. Getting even one problem right out of the 12 is significant.”

Dr. Robert Marmorstein, associate professor of computer science, also helped prepare the students. “Our team score was phenomenal for a school our size,” he said. “I was very pleasantly surprised; I was floored. I was dancing in the hall when I read the letter with the scores. Someone else on this floor was so excited they were screaming.”

Anway and Jobrack graduated in May 2013, and Pastore is now a senior. Jobrack’s score placed him 713th in the nation among the 4,277 contestants. The exam is so challenging that more than half of the participants score a zero. The most frequent scores above zero are 10 points for a complete solution, 9 points for a nearly complete solution and 1 point for the beginnings of a solution. The team scored 39 points (20 for Jobrack, 10 for Pastore and 9 for Anway). Two other Longwood students, Joe Gills and Will Hollingsworth, competed in the event on their own.

A Longwood team is expected to compete in the Putnam exam this December, which will be the fourth year in which the university has participated. Last fall Longwood students started gathering once a week to practice for the competition, which led to the formation of an informal group called the Problem Solving Group. However, the group, still active, has a mission larger than simply preparing for the Putnam exam.

“The goal is to make these students draw on material they learned in class and apply it in a different context and setting,” said Wears, who finds or modifies practice problems from a variety of levels. “We want them to see that math is more connected than they might realize.”

In addition to Wears and Marmorstein, others who served as coaches for the Putnam exam during the 2012-13 academic year included Dr. William Abrams, professor of mathematics; Dr. Leigh Lunsford, professor of mathematics; Dr. Robert May, professor emeritus of mathematics; and Dr. Phillip Poplin, associate professor of mathematics.

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