Owls Smash School Records in Prestigious Math Competition

Owls Smash School Records in Prestigious Math Competition

Left to right: Ross Gingrich, David Diaz, Joe Fields, Dani Rosenberg, Fred Kaesmann

Southern reached an historical apex recently in the prestigious William Lowell Putnam Mathematical Competition – commonly known as the Putnam Exam – where its math team competed against many of the top undergraduate math teams and students in the United States and Canada.

The Owls broke two school records – both in the team score category and for highest individual score. And although the ranking system is a bit complex, it doesn’t take a math whiz to understand these numbers:

  • Southern finished with a team score of 37 points – placing among the top 20 percent of all teams.
  • David Diaz’s individual score of 22 points vaulted him higher than seven out of eight students taking the Putnam Exam.
  • Dani Rosenberg’s score of 7 points was better than nearly two-thirds of all individual competitors.

“We are very happy for our students,” said Ross Gingrich, professor of mathematics and team advisor. “The students take the exam to challenge themselves for the pure love of mathematics. It is the hardest math test students will ever take at the undergraduate level.”

Joe Fields, professor of mathematics and also a team advisor, agreed. He pointed out that the students get together over pizza each Friday afternoon in the fall to prepare for the competition. During those seminars, they work on mathematical proofs – similar in nature to those offered on the test.

Getting students to give up much of their Friday afternoons each week is no small feat, according to Therese Bennett, associate dean for STEM.

“The Mathematics Department has been holding these problem-solving seminars for at least 20 years to provide opportunities for interested students from all majors to expand their math skills,” Bennett said. “Congratulations to everyone who has been involved in the Putnam seminars. I am extremely proud of the achievement of these mathematics students and their faculty advisors.”

The 80th annual Putnam Exam, administered by the Mathematical Association of America, attracted 570 institutions and 4,229 students. The overall team winner was the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), followed by Harvard University and Stanford University. The top five individuals hail from MIT.

“This is the third time I took the exam and I think I reached my ceiling,” said Diaz, a senior who is a Guilford High School graduate. “I aced two questions (perfect scores that take into account both correct answers and being able to prove those answers). And then I got partial credit on a third question.”

Diaz said he scored 2 points the first time he took the exam, and doubled that to 4 points the second time.

Gingrich was quick to note that scoring only a few points on the exam (out of a possible 120 point total) may not seem impressive. “But this exam is so difficult that the median score is typically 1 point or less,” he said. “The median score was just shy of 2 points this year.”

Rosenberg, a senior, said he was aiming to score 2 to 3 points this year, but was excited to see that he scored 7 points. “I definitely was better prepared this year than in the past,” he said.

Gingrich noted that the previous best team score was 30 points in 2013, when Southern was ranked 143rd.  The individual record had been shared by Steven Warner (2012) and Elizabeth Field (2013), who both had scored 20 points.

Fred Kaesmann, a senior, also was among the Southern competitors.