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No. 1 Rank Among Public Institutions Adds Up to Best Performance Since 1980
Photo illustration by Valerie Morgan
Undergraduates entering one of the toughest, most prestigious math contests in North America arrive equipped with pencils, scrap paper and checked expectations: The median score on the annual William Lowell Putnam Mathematical Competition is usually either zero or one point out of 120.
University of Maryland students who emerged from the brain-busting six-hour exam fared far better in the December contest, whose results were released this month: Terps placed fourth—behind only MIT, Harvard and Stanford—out of 456 competing institutions, and first among public schools. It is UMD’s best ranking in more than four decades.
“We were all thrilled with the amazing achievement of our Putnam team,” said Doron Levy, the chair of UMD’s Department of Mathematics. “This accomplishment reflects and significantly increases our ability to attract top talent to Maryland.”
The top three student scores from each institution are added together to determine the winning schools. Participants are graded on the quality and accurateness of their proofs and calculations. For the 2022 Putnam competition, computer science and mathematics double major Clarence Lam, mathematics major Isaac Mammel and mathematics major Daniel Yuan represented UMD, each ranking in the top 100 out of 3,415 participants.
“It’s a notoriously difficult exam,” said Roohollah Ebrahimian, a principal lecturer in UMD’s Department of Mathematics and the university’s Putnam coordinator. Each member of this year’s team scored between 50 to 63 points out of 120, far outpacing average scores on the test.
For UMD’s Putnam team members, their win came as a thrilling surprise.
“Honestly, I wasn’t expecting my results to be as good as they were, especially as this was my first time participating,” said Lam, who placed 87th. “There were so many extremely talented students in the competition, from my teammates to the other participants coming from schools like MIT and Harvard.”
Mammel, who placed 64th, echoed the sentiment: “I was also a little surprised, but I’m happy to see that I’ve improved since my first attempt at Putnam, and I’m proud of UMD for coming so far.”
Yuan ranked 46th in the competition. Although not on the UMD Putnam team, computer science major Philip Guo also placed in the top 200 individual scores.
Any UMD undergraduate can sign up for the competition, which was founded in 1938 and features 12 complex math problems. According to Ebrahimian, who has coached UMD participants since 2016, test topics range from abstract algebra to calculus to probability.
To prepare students for the Putnam Competition and other collegiate math events, Ebrahimian teaches a one-credit fall course known as “Putnam Express.” Students work through problems featured in previous competitions and share their individual approaches.
“It’s okay and perfectly normal to be wrong,” Ebrahimian said. “The point of the class is to prompt students to exercise their logical reasoning skills and help them pull from all their experiences in their other math classes.”
Students are encouraged to present their solutions to their classmates and explain their logic—even if the solutions are unconventional, incomplete or even incorrect—to illustrate the need for diverse thought processes when tackling concepts.
“The prep class really fostered creative thinking and a sense of pride in our abilities, which I think is important for any math student,” Lam said. “I’ve been interested in Putnam since high school, and for me, the class reaffirmed that competitive math could be fun.”
Ebrahimian is already looking forward to the next Putnam Competition and plans to increase outreach to potential participants, starting with high school students looking to enter the world of collegiate math competitions. He hopes that more students, including non-math majors, will sign up to test their skills and compete with other undergraduates who share a genuine love of math.
“We’ve really had some good turnouts in the past few years and usually rank in the top 10 or 15 participating institutions, but it was really exciting to see such a big jump in 2022,” Ebrahimian said. “The goal is now to maintain our momentum going forward.”
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