For the fourth year in a row, Memorial University students have taken the top prize at a regional math competition.
Each year the Science Atlantic Mathematics, Statistics and Computer Science Conference opens with problem-solving and computer programming competitions. The math competition gives teams of two from universities across Atlantic Canada three hours to solve eight questions with nothing but pencils and paper.
This year’s winners, Sam Bauer and Andrew Dawson, are in their second year of study in the Department of Mathematics and Statistics, Faculty of Science. At the event held in Moncton, N.B., in mid-October, they beat 20 other teams for first place.
“The competition is not about knowledge, it’s about reasoning,” said Mr. Dawson. “The level of math is not the challenge. You could look at a question and see right away how to do it and finish it really quickly, or you could work on it for 40 minutes and get nowhere. It’s just a matter of being able to look at the questions in a different way.”
No recipe for success
The pair were selected to represent Memorial at a qualifier on campus in September, an annual competition open to all students at Memorial, not just those working on math degrees.
“These problems are unusual in some way. There’s no recipe to follow.”
After placing in the qualifier, the men worked with Dr. Mikhail Kotchetov, Dr. Tom Baird and Dr. Graham Cox, all faculty members with the Department of Mathematics and Statistics, to prepare for the Science Atlantic conference scheduled for Oct. 12-13.
“Unlike calculus homework, where you just have to grind through problems which are solvable by standard methods if you just follow the recipe, in this competition it’s quite the opposite,” said Dr. Kotchetov. “These problems are unusual in some way. There’s no recipe to follow.”
Mr. Bauer was also a member of Memorial’s 2017 team, along with Mason Nolan (B.Sc.’18).
Other members from the university’s four-year winning streak include Noah MacAulay (B.Sc.(Hons.)’17) and Leah Genge (B.Sc.(Hons.)’17) in 2016 and Noah MacAulay and Michael Sullivan (B.Sc.’16) in 2015.
It’s an impressive feat, but Memorial teams have placed in the competition’s top three every year for the last decade.
And, in the history of the competition, which has run since 1978, only one university has managed to win four years in a row on one other occasion. Guess which one? That’s right: Memorial University. (That streak has been unbroken since 1985.)
“We have excellent students at Memorial who do well on these competitions and my colleagues really nurture them at the university level,” said Dr. Danny Dyer. “A lot of training has to happen here, because it’s only when they hit university that they get the subject matter knowledge to tackle these problems in creative ways.”
However, Dr. Dyer and current faculty members Dr. Ivan Booth and Dr. Margo Kondratieva, as well as retired, but still actively engaged, Dr. Peter Booth, begin that nurturing even earlier for primary school students in Newfoundland and Labrador with an interest in mathematics.
The Department of Mathematics and Statistics holds annual Math Kangaroo contests for students from Grades 1-12, as well as inter-school junior and senior high school math leagues. They also host the Blundon Contest for senior high students and those who receive top scores are invited to campus for the annual Blundon Seminar camp: a three-day event with intellectual and fun activities. Past participants often go on to great success at Memorial and other universities.
“These competitions are often the first point of contact for these talented students with someone from our department,” said Dr. Baird. “It’s a great outreach program to help attract some of the students who do so well in these competitions to Memorial.”
Mr. Bauer, a Holy Heart of Mary High School graduate, and Mr. Dawson, a Gonzaga High School alumnus, battled each other several times at these competitions throughout junior and senior high school and were invited to the Blundon Seminar Camp several years running.
Dr. Kondratieva notes that the outreach program not only produces some of the best undergraduate students, but also allows them to receive additional training.
“This is a win-win situation as both high school students and university students benefit from the interaction,” she said.
“The continuity is also important here. Sam Bauer was a participant of Blundon Seminar in 2017 as a Grade 12 student and the following year he helped with the seminar’s problem sessions as a freshman. Mason Nolan, another former participant of the seminar, composed problems for Math League games and the Blundon contest in 2018. And they are just two examples.”
Arthur Smith (B.Sc.(Hons.)’85) heard about Mr. Bauer and Mr. Dawson’s success from his mother.
He was on the team that started Memorial’s original streak back in 1982. He is currently lead data analyst at the American Physical Society in New York and holds a PhD from Cornell University.
He vividly recalls the conference he won that year with Michael Sandys-Wunsch (B.Sc.’84).
“Michael and I were told by our professor to finish up lunch at the hotel and he would drive us to the competition immediately after, but it came time for the competition and he hadn’t shown up to collect us,” he said. “We decided it couldn’t be far to the university and we could walk; we finally found our way to the competition room a little over half an hour late, after asking several people for directions along the way.
“The exam folks were rather surprised and made some remarks about “Newfoundland time!” I was rather filled with adrenaline by then and raced through the questions, but Michael took his time – they did give some extra to finish since we started late – and I think it was one of our best showings. Maybe the walk helped.”
World’s hardest math competition
Mr. Bauer and Mr. Dawson are currently preparing for the Putnam Competition, considered the hardest mathematics competition for undergraduate students in the United States and Canada.
More than half of the students who participate in the six-hour competition get a score of zero out of a possible 120 points. Memorial often scores within the competition’s top 100, putting them in Canada’s top 10.
“The fact that these people, who are already very strong in math, get a zero is truly indicative of something,” said Mr. Bauer. “I got 10 last year on the Putnam and I was very happy with that.”