Willam Lowell Putnam Mathematical Competition: Putting Creativity Back Into Math through BYU’s Putnam Team
“It doesn’t matter if you’re computer science, or physics, or humanities—you can be a creative dance major, and come and take the Putnam [exam] if you feel inclined,” said Dr. Michael Griffin, coach of the BYU Putnam team. Even though the competition involves completing a math test, it doesn’t deter students outside of the math discipline from participating.
But, there’s more to the competition than just computing the answer. Although the Putnam Contest is broken up into two sections, each three hours long with a total of six problems per session, Griffin said it “focuses much more on creative aspects and cleverness.” It was the creative aspects of math that drew Griffin to mathematics in the first place. He said he felt like doing math was like working on puzzles and “competition mathematics really aims at that puzzle aspect of it,” Griffin commented.
Are you interested in participating in the Putnam competition but feel you’re not ready? Every fall semester, a class focusing on preparing for the Putnam is co-taught twice a week by Griffin and Dr. Gary Lawlor. “We meet together and we talk about the problems,” Griffin explained. He purposely makes the class student-driven in order to “encourage students to give presentations and to select problems” they’re interested in working on.
Another way students can prepare for the Putnam competition is by trying to solve the math problem of the week posted on the department’s Instagram page (@byumath). Professor Xian-Jin Li posts this problem in the TMCB hallway by his office once a week to encourage students “to stop and think about it” and hopefully “find some enjoyment” Griffin said. There’s even a prize for the first correct solution!
Aside from preparing students for the Putnam, Griffin strives to encourage students to think about mathematics and science in a more creative way. “One of the first things, one of the most important and basic things, is to stop frightening students” about math, Griffin noted. That’s because there’s more to math than just number crunching and “maybe the way to stop conveying a fear of math is to develop a love of math yourself—to discover the beautiful aspects of it,” Griffin continues. For example, he suggests one of the ways to overcome negativity towards math is to learn more about fractals and fractal art.
If you are an incoming freshman or continuing student, you can apply for a one-year Putnam Contest scholarship. In order to qualify for the scholarship, you will need to enroll in the Math 391R Putnam preparation course (offered in the fall), have a demonstrable ability on mathematical competitions, maintain a minimum GPA of 3.5, and participate in the Putnam competition held in December. The deadline to apply is March 31. If you have any further questions, or want more information about the scholarship, visit the BYU Mathematics Department Scholarship Opportunities page.
Whether you’re a mathematics student or an art major, Griffin is committed to helping students develop their math skills and rediscover the creative nature of math. Becoming involved in the Putnam competition is one way to increase both your math and creative skills at the same time. That’s a Math + Creativity =Putnam equation; anyone who wants to participate can solve.
For more information about the Putnam Contest, visit their website.
BYU’s Nationally Ranked Putnam Team:
- 2022 (13th)
- 2021 (11th)
- 2019 (21st)
- 2018 (19th)
- 2017 (22th)
- 2016 (25th)
- 2013 (9th)
- 2012 (7th)
The Putnam exam consists of two three-hour tests with 12 problems in total. Each problem is graded on a scale of 0 to 10 points. Undergraduates from the U.S. and Canada take the exam, forming teams to represent their respective universities. The top five teams and the top 25 individuals with the highest scores are awarded scholarships and prize money. It takes place each December on the first Saturday of the month.