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Mathematics department to host statewide competition

February 22, 2013
By cnp
Posted in Mathematics

On Saturday, Feb. 23, the University of the Ozarks mathematics department will host undergraduate students from across the state, challenging them to test their mathematics skills during the 10th annual Arkansas Undergraduate Mathematics Competition.

This competition, held each year on the last Saturday in February, provides an opportunity for students from all small 4-year colleges and universities in Arkansas to compete in a challenging, but fun, atmosphere. It is also, Ozarks Associate Professor of Mathematics Dr. Matt Myers said, a chance for them to meet and interact with their peers at other institutions. Each participating institution sends one or more teams made up of at least two, but not more than four, students.

The day begins with a continental breakfast, giving the students a chance to meet and mingle. "Eveyone comes in, half-groggy - no one is awake yet," said Stephen Adams, a senior mathematics major at Ozarks. "There are 30 or 40 other kids out there zombie-ing out on coffee and donuts."

The actual competition gets underway at 10 a.m., when each team is taken into a separate room, isolated from the outside world. Each is given a sheet with 10 questions, and is challenged to solve as many of them as possible within the three-hour competition. However, there’s a catch…the teams are provided with only basic tools to use - paper, pencil, tables/desks, and chalk boards/white boards - as they try to find the solution to each problem.

Myers said that the questions were written by Dr. Gerald Heuer, of Concordia College, in Minnesota, and that they range in complexity from those requiring only skills below the differential equations/linear algebra level to questions that would challenge even graduate level mathematics students.

Adams knows as well as anyone what it’s like to be handed your questions and hear the door close behind you. Saturday, he’ll be competing for the third time. He said that the teams aren’t allowed to use a calculator during the exam, but even if they were, a calculator probably wouldn’t be of much use. "It’s more of a ‘can you think of the answer’ in a limited amount of time - can you find the trick," he said. "We’re assigned a room, and at a given time, someone walks in with an envelope and says ‘that’s your problems.’ You have your problems and a stack of white paper."

Adams said that some problems are fairly easy to solve. "Usually somebody picks a problem they know they can solve, and they write that problem down and put it aside," he said.  But the answers to other problems aren’t so obvious, and in those cases, the teams may have to really get creative in searching for the solution. "A lot of times, it involves a lot of brainstorming," he said.  "I remember one time they put us in classroom that had three black boards across the room. One of the problems involved a giant table. It was a lot easier for us to visualize the table than it was to write down the formula." Adams then described how the team ended up meticulously drawing their grid on the board, taking up about 5 feet of the blackboard. "I think we missed that question though," he said with a laugh. 

After three hours, the competition ends, and the teams must turn in their answers, finished or not. As Myers said, "At 1 p.m. the students - with eyes glazed over and muttering nonsense about Hilbert Spaces and Euclidean norms - are dragged out of their rooms. Their primitive mathematical tools (a.k.a. pencils and paper) are taken away, and they are propped up against a wall while the hieroglyphic marks they made on the paper in an attempt to answer the questions are gathered and sent off to be graded."

Dr. Heuer will grade each team’s answers, and provide the scores back to the competition organizers. The team that scores the most points will be awarded first place, with each team member receiving a $50 cash award. Each member of the second place team will receive $30, and each member of the third place team will receive $20.

This year, Ozarks will have two teams that will compete against 11 other teams from across the state. "If you know someone who is competing, wish them luck!" Myers said. "If you really want to empathize with your mathematically minded comrades, then while they are attempting to answer their 10 mind-bending questions, perhaps you could work a couple of your own."

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Don’t feel bad if you don’t know the answers. But if you solve them in 10 minutes or less, Myers said, "Please don’t tell the team members. We don’t want to deflate their confidence before the competition!"