By Dr. Zebediah Engberg
The problems in a successful math contest do not require any high-level mathematics, nor do their solutions involve the rote application of a standard recipe. Contrary to popular belief, the purpose of math competition is not to bolster a college application (sorry parents!). Instead, math contests provide problems that emphasize creativity, a willingness to take risks, an open and agile mind, and deep critical thinking. These contests bring together a huge community of students with a common interest in and love of problem-solving. While a passion for mathematics is typically not a requirement for social popularity, math contests provide an impetus and a gathering space for exactly these students. The Harvard-MIT Mathematics Tournament (HMMT) is perhaps the best example of such a contest.
The HMMT is entirely organized by Harvard and MIT undergraduate students, and the event brings in 900 of the brightest students from around the country and world. Most of the elite east coast boarding schools send teams to the tournament, and many major cities send their “math circles” cultivated from large pools of talented students. In addition to the many domestic teams, this year’s November HMMT brought in international teams from China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Korea, Mexico, Honduras, and Canada. This was Wasatch Academy’s fourth consecutive year attending the HMMT. This year, we sent two teams: A Wasatch Team consisting of our six students John Kim, David Liu, Winnie Li, Chloe Jeon, William Wang, and Brian Lyu, and a Utah Team consisting of our student Nguyen Le and four students from other high schools around Utah.
As has been the case in previous years, our students perform far better when they are working together. Indeed, in the weeks and months leading up to the contest, math team students work together in small groups to solve problems from previous contests. They are comfortable bouncing ideas off one another, and when one of our students hits a roadblock, there is another student to continue the momentum. As the coach of the math team, my goal is to foster a community of thinkers, and collaboration is a huge part of this.
The tournament included both individual and team portions. In the individual rounds, Utah Team member Thomas Draper excelled, receiving prize winning scores on both individual tests. Indeed, as was announced at the awards ceremony, Thomas was the overall individual winner of the entire HMMT. Other students on the Utah team, including Wasatch student Nguyen Le, also excelled with scores in the top tenth percentile. John Kim, David Liu, and Winnie Li were big contributors for Wasatch and earned high scores for the team.
After three hours of morning testing, my students were given a needed lunch break to eat and collect themselves before the culminating test aptly named the “Guts Round”. In many ways, the Guts Round is the highlight of the tournament. Students move through twelve sets of problems as quickly as possible. Beginning with a set of three problems, students work together to solve them before running their solutions to the front of the auditorium and picking up another set of increasingly difficult problems. Their solutions are scored in real time and are displayed on a large screen for spectators to see.
In the Guts Round, the Wasatch Team made slow but incremental progress. The team strategically decided to move cautiously on the initial problems. Instead of attempting more problems in later rounds, they gave each problem a deliberate and focused attempt before moving on. Team Wasatch ended the round in 36th place out of 142 teams. This was an incredible performance for us, and is by far our best result in the Guts Round.
The Utah Team flourished in the Guts Round. They solved problem after problem correctly, and their name soon appeared on the top-ten leaderboard. With about 20 minutes left in the 80-minute Guts Round, the Utah Team had climbed to first place on the live scoreboard. The final few rounds included problems that were so difficult that a correct solution was rewarded with a jackpot of points. Their position slipped slightly with ten minutes remaining, but they were able to solve one of these jackpot questions with only seconds left on the clock. After the dust settled, they ended in 6th place out of the 142 teams. Our Utah Team proved to be one of the strongest in the world.