Math Champs


Duke students have won North America’s most prestigious event of its kind for undergraduates, the William Lowell Putnam Mathematical Competition, for the third time since 1993. A separate team was also a top placer, for Duke’s fourth year in a row, in the illustrious Mathematical Contest in Modeling, sponsored by the Consortium of Mathematics and its Applications.

Duke’s official three-member Putnam team, which included senior John Clyde and juniors Nathan Curtis and Kevin Lacker, out-competed teams from Caltech, Harvard, M.I.T., and the University of Toronto in the grueling event. Administered by the Mathematical Association of America, the competition featured 2,818 students from 434 colleges and universities in the United States and Canada vying to solve twelve very challenging problems—so challenging that the median score was only 1 out of the 120 possible points. About half the students scored zero. Clyde, of New Plymouth, Idaho; Curtis, of Reston, Virginia; and Lacker, of Cincinnati, were each among the top fifteen scorers and, under the Putnam’s complicated rules, their team won first place overall. They will each receive $2,000 and Duke will receive $25,000.
Students participated in Putnam competitions on their individual campuses in December, but the results are not announced until March. Nineteen Duke students competed in the 2001 Putnam. According to the rules, only three students can be designated as the school’s official team.
Another Duke senior, Carl Miller, of Bethesda, Maryland, was also among the top fifteen scorers, although he was not a team member. He will receive $1,000. Duke freshman David Arthur, of Toronto, and senior Michael Colsher, of Waukesha, Wisconsin, won honorable mention for scoring in the top 2 percent of competitors.
Lacker, a mathematics and computer science double major and a Goldwater Scholar, led the Duke participants by scoring 85 points. He was followed closely by Clyde, a computer science major who also plays drums in the Pep Band, as well as by Curtis.
Miller, the other Putnam top-fifteen scorer from Duke, joined Duke junior Sam Malone, of Zebulon, North Carolina, and senior Daniel Neill, of Tampa, Florida, to place the university at the top ranks of the Mathematical Contest in Modeling, a different kind of event requiring students to design and justify a mathematical model of a real-world problem over a long ninety-six-hour weekend.
Working from 12:01 a.m. on Friday, February 9 to 11:59 p.m. on Monday, February 12, the trio wrote a forty-seven-page paper describing strategies to evacuate by road a half-million people from hurricane-threatened coastal communities. The scenario was modeled on a flawed evacuation in South Carolina during Hurricane Floyd in 1999, when “authorities made one large announcement to everyone at the same time so that everyone all of a sudden tried to evacuate,” says Miller. “That led to huge bottlenecks. A trip that usually takes a couple of hours took eighteen hours.”
A total of 579 teams from around the globe competed in this year’s modeling contest, supported by the National Security Agency, Mathematical Association of America, Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics, and the Institute for Operations Research and Management Science. Competing students get to choose between two problems, and the very best solutions—about 2 percent of the total—are judged as Outstanding. Those winning teams are presented with plaques, and their papers will be published in the journal Undergraduate Mathematics and its Applications.

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