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MIT Shines in Programming Contest, Putnam Math Exam

By Susan Buchman

MIThas been well-represented by its students in recent prestigious academic competitions. In the world finals for the Association for Computing Machinery International Collegiate Programming Contest, the MIT team placed first of teams from the United States and fifth overall.

The contest was held on February 28 in Atlanta, Georgia. The MIT team consisted of Daniel G. Adkins '01, Mihai Badoiu '01, and Hristo I. Bojinov '99. They were coached by Assistant Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science Martin C. Rinard.

The teams had eight programs to code, test, and perfect in five hours. MIT and the other teams in the top six all solved six problems. "The only, and very small, difference was time," Bojinov said. "We were very close to becoming world champions."

The team previously placed second at the regional competition, because they were poorly coordinated, but they practiced more for the world championship, Bojinov said.

"The preparation lasted for most of February," he said. "What we worked on together was team strategy - who solves what problems and when."

"At the actual competition we have a single computer and we need to make sure that we use this resource well," Bojinov said "Thanks to our coach, Professor Martin Rinard, we were able to work together as a team very well by the finals."

MIT finished 4th on Putnam exam

MIT's team also placed fourth in the country in this year's William Lowell Putnam Mathematical Competition. Although seventy-five MITundergraduates took the exam, Federico Ardila '98, Constantin Chiscanu '00, and Amit Khetan '99 were chosen ahead of time the by coaches, Professors of Mathematics Hartley Rogers and Richard P. Stanley to represent MIT as a team.

It was not their scores, but the ranking of their scores, that was used to determine the team results. The team's strong finish earned each member $400, as well as a ten thousand dollar prize that will be put into the math department's Putnam Fund and will be used for amenities for math majors such as department parties.

In addition to the team's high finish, many individuals did well on the exam. Ardila, Eric H. Kuo '99, and Edward D. Lee '99 all finished in the top twenty-five and won prizes of $250. Miroslav Jurisic '99, Khetan, Brian J. Tivol '98, and Benjamin D. Wieland '00 earned honorable mentions.

Exam proves very difficult

The exam consists of 12 questions, worth a maximum of ten points each, and participants are given six hours to prepare their solutions. The highest score on this year's test was a 92 (out of a possible 120), and the median score was a 0, meaning that over half of the approximately 2,500 students nationwide who took the test received a score of zero.

"The graders are very severe; they give very little partial credit," Rogers said. "They'll give one or two points or nine or ten - nothing in between."

"It's hard, and very little partial credit for any problem is awarded," said Edward D. Lee '99. "Some of the easier problems can be solved using standard mathematical tricks, but the harder questions require more creativity and insight. Also, the answers have to be written up in a mathematically rigorous way."

"The test was quite challenging; I probably solved six of the twelve problems," said Eric H. Kuo '98. Because large financial awards are at stake, the grading process is long. Although the exam was administered last December, the scores were just recently released. All of the tests are given a preliminary grading, and then the top few hundred are carefully re-graded. The final scores are then ordered to establish a final ranking.

No formal preparation is required of MIT students taking the exam and it is open to all who wish to sign up. "For a few weeks before the exam, I worked on old Putnam problems for an hour or two each day," Lee said.

"The questions test your creativity more than your knowledge, so even if you knew which topics are going to be on the exam, you can study all you want and it's not going to help too much," Ardila said.

The mathematics department does offer a seminar in the fall, taught by Rogers and Stanley, that focuses on preparing for the Putnam.