William Lowell Putnam Mathematical Competition

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Westminster College was represented by three students who participated in the 74th annual William Lowell Putnam Mathematical Competition on Saturday, December 7, 2013.  This year's Westminster's participants included mathematics majors Gregory Clark, John Griebel, and Emily Walther.
The competition was sponsored by the Mathematics and Computer Science Department and was proctored by Dr. Natacha Fontes-Merz, Associate Professor of Mathematics.  Participants enjoyed lunch at Applebee's; the lunch punctuated the morning and afternoon sessions.
The Putnam Exam is a challenging individual mathematical exam which is taken by thousands of undergraduate students specializing in mathematics in the U.S. and Canada on the first Saturday in December each year.  Noted for its rigor, the exam's median score is usually one or two points out of 120 possible; there have even been years when the median score was zero nationally.  The five highest ranking individuals are designated Putnam Fellows by the Mathematical Association of America. 

Putnam Exam participants attempt to solve twelve problems, which can typically be solved with only basic knowledge of college mathematics but which require extensive creative thinking.  Each of the twelve questions is worth ten points, and the most frequent scores above zero are ten points for a complete solution, nine points for a nearly complete solution, and one point for the beginnings of a solution. In earlier years, the twelve questions were worth one point each, with absolutely no partial credit given.

The competition began in 1938 and is designed to stimulate a healthful rivalry in mathematical studies in the colleges and universities of the United States and Canada. It exists because Mr. William Lowell Putnam had a profound conviction in the value of organized team competition in regular college studies. Mr. Putnam, a member of the Harvard class of 1882, wrote an article for the December 1921 issue of the Harvard Graduates' Magazine in which he described the merits of an intellectual intercollegiate competition. To establish such a competition, his widow, Elizabeth Lowell Putnam, in 1927 created a trust fund known as the William Lowell Putnam Intercollegiate Memorial Fund. The first competition supported by this fund was in the field of English and a few years later a second experimental competition was held, this time in mathematics between two institutions. It was not until after Mrs. Putnam's death in 1935 that the examination assumed its present form and was placed under the administration of the Mathematical Association of America.