UNO Math Students Break University Records at Putnam Competition

Photo courtesy of Professor Elder

Ashley Morton

Math isn’t everyone’s forte, but for mathematics students at the University of Nebraska at Omaha (UNO) it’s a different story. UNO math students recently broke some of the university’s own records at the Putnam Competition.

The Putnam Mathematical Competition is a competition for undergraduate students in the U.S. and Canada. What started out as a mathematics competition among university and college mathematics departments in 1938, has escalated into the “leading university-level mathematics examination in the world,” according to the Mathematical Association of America’s website.

Each December, thousands of students from the U.S. and Canada participate in the Putnam Competition. The exam itself consists of 12 questions in undergraduate mathematics, each worth up to 10 points for each part of the problem that is solved correctly. While it is considered an individual exam, each school with enough participants builds a team with three of their students in order to use those points as an awards system for the mathematics departments of their institution. Points and awards are then assessed for each individual and team, allowing the individuals and the five mathematics departments with the highest rankings to earn notoriety as a whole.

This year, 27 UNO students participated in the Putnam Competition–the highest number of participants in UNO’s history and 14 students earned points–another record for the school. For the first time since 2013, UNO’s team placed in the top 10 percentile, ranking 56 out of 568 colleges and universities.

Griff Elder, a Mathematics professor at UNO, has been helping prepare students for the Putnam Competition since 1999. In fact, it’s thanks to him and a fellow professor that UNO competes in this particular competition.

“I took the exam as an undergraduate and at that time it was a ‘thing.’ When I began teaching at UNO, I noticed there were no mathematics clubs or activities offered outside of class. That motivated me to start and encourage those types of activities for our students,” Elder said. “Cultivating an appetite and environment where people enjoy having the opportunity to challenge themselves was important.”

Elder’s influence and contributions in preparing students for the competition have paid off. Since 2012, UNO has scored in the top 20 percent of participants at the competition. Elder thinks those who choose to compete are driven by a love for mathematics. To him, the problems presented during the competition are “beautiful and captivating.”

He likens this captivation with math to a good book. “We all understand how you can get lost in a good book and not be aware that time has passed. A good math problem can do the same thing,” Elder said.

Some of the top scorers from UNO were Cody Anderson, a triple major earning a bachelor’s in math, physics and computer science, who earned 20 points putting him in the top 13.5 percent of all participants; Sarah McCarty, a double major earning a bachelor’s in math and computer science, earned 11 points which put her in the top 23 percent; and Grant Moles and Brad Tuttle, who each earned 10 points, putting them in the top 25 percent.