Math students score in Putnam, Missouri math competitions

Ron Freiwald

A WUSTL team took first place in the 16th annual Missouri Collegiate Mathematics Competition. The winning team members were (from left) sophomore Matt Halpern, senior Lucy Wang and sophomore Ari Tenzer.

The Department of Mathematics in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis has announced the results of the William Lowell Putnam Mathematics Competition.

The university fielded 22 students in the competition, which was held Dec. 4, 2010. Altogether, 4,296 students from across the United States and Canada took part.

The students competed in two three-hour sessions, during each of which they worked individually to solve six problems.

“The Putnam consists of 12 really challenging problems that test not so much profound mathematical knowledge as ingenuity and cleverness,” says Ronald Freiwald, PhD, professor of mathematics and director of undergraduate studies in the department.

Three students were designated in advance as a school team; the team score is the sum of the three individual scores.

This year, the WUSTL team consisting of junior Alex Anderson, sophomore Ari Tenzer and senior Tim Wiser placed 19th out of 442 teams from 546 colleges and universities.

Individual performances also are ranked. Anderson earned an honorable mention with a rank of 56.5 (he tied with other students). Two other students ranked in the top 200 and one in the top 400.

Elizabeth Lowell Putnam established the William Lowell Putnam Intercollegiate Memorial Fund in memory of her husband, who graduated in mathematics from Harvard. The first competition was held in 1938 and the contest has been sponsored since then by the Mathematical Association of America.

The WUSTL students prepped for the competition with weekly problem sessions coached by Richard Rochberg, PhD, professor of mathematics, and Carl M. Bender, PhD, the Konneker Distinguished Professor of Physics in Arts & Sciences.

Anderson, who recently was awarded the prestigious Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship, is a math and physics major who plans to go to graduate school in physics, largely because of Bender’s influence.

“He’s really enthusiastic about what he does and it just kind of rubs off on me,” Anderson says.

An archive of Putnam problems can be found at

Missouri Collegiate Mathematics Competition

Ron Freiwald

A WUSTL team also placed third in the Missouri Collegiate Mathematics Competition. The team at work (from left) junior Alex Anderson, senior Stephanie Higgins and sophomore Tom Morrell.

WUSTL math students also did well in the 16th annual Missouri Collegiate Mathematics Competition held March 31-April 1 at Columbia College in Columbia, Mo.

The two university teams took both first and third place. About 34 teams from 17 colleges and universities across Missouri took part.

“At first when our team looked at the problems, we thought they were really difficult,” says Lucy Wang, a senior majoring in math and in Spanish in Arts & Sciences. “But then we all went through and read them over and over to see if any of us could figure any of them out. Usually after a couple of read-throughs and fifteen minutes, we’d divide them up, breaking them down into parts. We each worked on what we knew how to do, and then we’d look over one another’s answers later.”

Wang is thinking of becoming an actuary. “It appealed to me because I like programming and because I’m on the statistical track of the math major, it seemed like a pretty good fit.”

She already has taken the first two actuary exams, just to test the waters.

The competition consists of two sessions, in each of which teams work collaboratively on five problems for two-and-a-half hours. It is sponsored by the Missouri section of the Mathematical Association of America and began in 1996. Since then, a WUSTL team has captured first place 10 times.

The competition also included lectures on mathematics. Anderson says he enjoyed the talks because the emphasis was on doing math for the fun of it.

Erik D. Demaine, a MacArthur Fellow and professor of electrical engineering and computer science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was one of the keynote speakers. Demaine is particularly well known for his interest in computational origami, or programs that compute the crease pattern needed to fold paper sculptures.

To view this year’s problems from the state competition, visit