For first time in recent history, UMD team breaks top 10 in national math competition

Kirwan Hall, where the math department is housed. (Tom Hausman/The Diamondback).

All throughout middle and high school, Pratik Rathore went head-to-head with other amateur mathematicians in competitions across the East Coast, from Princeton University to the University of Maryland.

When Rathore arrived at this university in 2017, he knew he wanted to continue solving complex math problems in the high-pressure setting of tournaments. So, in his first semester, Rathore sat for six hours to compete in the William Lowell Putnam competition, an annual mathematics contest for American and Canadian undergraduates.

And in late March, Rathore and two other students found out that they had placed ninth out of 568 schools in the 2018 Putnam competition, becoming the first team from this university to break into the top 10 in recent history.

“[Our placement] shows that UMD has talent to compete with some of the top schools in the country,” Rathore said.

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The team was composed of Rathore, senior math and computer science major Aaron George and junior math and computer science major Erik Metz.

Individually, George placed 193rd in the competition, Rathore placed 120th and Metz placed 87th. Sophomore chemical engineering and math major Joshua Fernandes was not on this university’s team, but placed 180th overall.

“I was amazed when I got the results back,” Fernandes said.

Any student at this university can register for the Putnam, which is offered each December. It entails a six-hour math test with 12 complex problems, involving concepts such as calculus, number theory, counting methods, abstract algebra and probability, according to math professor Roohollah Ebrahimian, the Putnam coordinator for this university.

Each fall, Ebrahimian offers a class — MATH299B: Selected Topics in Mathematics; Putnam Express — to help students prepare. The class is “run by students,” he said, which makes it “very different” from most of the courses that math majors take.

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Every week, students work through problems presented in past Putnam competitions. Rather than relying solely on their math skills, Putnam math problems encourage students to examine situations critically, Ebrahimian said.

“Of course, you need to have a lot of knowledge of math,” he said. “[But] it’s less about the knowledge and more about critical thinking and problem-solving techniques.”

George wasn’t in the Putnam Express class this year, but he still prepared for the tournament with other competing students. This year was his fourth and final time taking the Putnam. For him, part of the appeal of the competition is building skills with a team.

“My [personal score on] the exam wasn’t as high as it was in the past, but I was really excited when I found out the team placed ninth,” George said. “It’s rewarding to know that you did well and the people you worked with did well.”

Metz was also happy to see that the team placed so highly.

“I thought it was pretty cool that we made the top 10,” he said. “I kept hoping that one year that I was here, we would get that placement.”

Because there are four months between the actual test and the announcement of the results, Ebrahimian is already looking forward to next year.

“I’m really proud of our team,” Ebrahimian said. “I hope to maintain the results and do even better next year.”

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