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Top Mathematics Recruit Powers Cougar ‘Mathletes’ to Top-25 Finish

Paced by a strong performance by true freshman Sam Dittmer – a national math champ back in high school – the BYU math squad finished the season ranked in the top 25.

The highly touted recruit proved worthy of seeing action in his first year and now leaves some big shoes to fill as he sets his sights on a Church mission to Albania.

Dittmer and teammates Donald Sampson and Michael Griffin placed 23rd out of 405 college teams during the six-hour-long William Lowell Putnam Mathematical Competition.

While nearly half of the competitors walked away without a single point, Dittmer contributed 66 toward the Cougars’ score of 109 – good enough to earn individual honorable mention honors.

“That’s amazing for Sam to step in and perform that well as a freshman,” said BYU math department chair Tyler Jarvis.

The notoriously difficult Putnam exam proved no less daunting this year. Try this problem on for size:

Demonstrate the largest possible radius of a circle contained in a four-dimensional hypercube of side length 1.

Confused? You’ve got company. Only 19 of the nation’s top 189 students nailed that one.

Surprisingly, contestants agree that the mechanics involved come easy, usually requiring basic calculus or trigonometry. The hard part is the extreme problem-solving nature of the exam.

“Typically it’s like, ‘Here’s a problem. Evaluate the problem, organize its implications, and rigorously prove something useful – or not useful as the case may be – about the problem,’” said BYU junior Donald Sampson, whose 30 points put him above the 90th percentile nationally.

To prepare his team, BYU coach Tiancheng Ouyang invited world-class problem solver Gengzhe Chang to campus for specialized training sessions. A former coach of a Chinese math olympiad team, Chang covered techniques for quickly solving functional equations, among other things. Jarvis says such intense, hands-on training is part of the reason BYU’s math majors graduate to a wide variety of professional fields.

The mathletes’ season also saw a head-to-head win against in-state rival University of Utah in March. In that match-up, BYU’s top three undergrads posted 165 points against 50 from the Utes’ top three.

Looking ahead to next season, the BYU coaches say they want to build on this year’s performance – but they’re going to have to do it with a different lineup.

Both Sampson and Griffin return and have high expectations for next season. Sampson will be a senior looking for that signature performance to impress grad school scouts. Griffin will use the off-season to shake any remaining mission rust. Before his two mathless years of service in Bangalore, India, Griffin scored 37 points as a freshman on the 2005 Putnam exam. On this year’s test, Griffin managed 13 points – the drop-off clearly a function of time away from school.

“Mission service is definitely a factor,” Griffin said. “You fall out of condition. When you come back you have to relearn stuff. It was really interesting taking class last semester to prepare for it. I had no idea how much I’d forgotten.”

The third and final roster spot won’t be decided until next fall, coaches say. Don’t be surprised if BYU lands another talented high school recruit ready to contribute immediately.

Despite his Ph.D. in mathematics from Princeton, Jarvis recently sought tutoring from the athletics department on how to find recruits.

“One of the things those teams have, that we don’t have yet, is a network of former athletes always scouting for them, always on the lookout for LDS kids and others who have talent and would fit in at BYU, and they refer them back and make that connection,” Jarvis said. “That’s something that would help us.”

And on that note, Jarvis welcomes tips from BYU fans around the country about their local high school math whiz. Send details and game film to Jarvis@math.byu.edu.

--BYU News, 14 April 2009

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