VIU students reach lofty heights in mathematics challenge

May 4, 2011 - 3:00am

The numbers tell an impressive story when it comes to the most important undergraduate mathematics competition in North America.

4296 =The number of students from 546 institutions in Canada and the US who entered the William Lowell Putnam Mathematical Competition.

0 = The score that almost half the entrants received for their efforts in the six-hour exam.

2 = The number of Vancouver Island University students who correctly answered two of the 12 daunting questions and ranked among the top 20 per cent of all competitors.

VIU Mathematics professor David Bigelow uses the international competition as a challenge for students in Math 360 – a senior-level course focused on problem-solving.

“I have such respect for the exam, the only way a student can score an A+ in Math 360 is by correctly answering two or more questions,” says Bigelow.

“I have never had the opportunity to assign an A+ in the course until now. This year two of my students, Kate Hall and Brandon Sharratt, both correctly answered two questions. It’s an impressive achievement.”

The competition, which was established in 1938, shines an academic spotlight on the brightest mathematical minds in North America. Several individual Putnam champions have gone on to win the Nobel Prize for Physics and the Fields Medal for Mathematics.

Teams from the California Institute of Technology, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University are among the perennial leaders in the Putnam competition.

“You really need to have a creative brain to solve the problems in this competition,” says Bigelow. “They’re problems that require some real insight rather than simply doing calculations.”

Hall, who is working towards a Bachelor of Science with minors in math, chemistry and biology, describes herself as a “puzzle person” and says the Math 360 course was a natural fit.

“It was very challenging but fun. It works a part of my brain that doesn’t get worked too often.”

Sharratt is headed toward graduation in June with a Bachelor of Science in Computing Science. He plans to take a year off before pursuing post-graduate studies and a possible career in teaching at a university.

The math challenges in Bigelow’s course are readily applicable to his major. “At the end of the day, computing science is just problem solving,” says Sharratt.

While the mathematical challenges in the Putnam competition are more complex, Bigelow introduces his Math 360 students to problem-solving with a 12-penny challenge.

One of the pennies is counterfeit and has a different weight. The exercise in logic requires students to find a way to make three measurements with a balancing scale to determine which coin is different and whether it weighs more or less than the others.

For more information on Math 360 or to offer your solution to the penny problem, contact:

Note: Bigelow will make a random selection from correct entries to the penny problem challenge received by May 13 and award the winner with two passes to the Extreme Science show. The show will be presented Thursday, May 19, at 7 pm at the VIU theatre. Tickets are $10 and are available in the Physics Building (315), rooms 208, 209 or 210. All proceeds go to LED Africa (

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