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National math champ enrolls at BYU, passing on MIT and Stanford

When incoming freshman Sam Dittmer meets his classmates at Brigham Young University, he probably won’t introduce himself as the 2006 national high school math champion – nor would he mention turning down an acceptance letter from MIT and $25,000 in annual financial aid from Stanford.

Preferring not to “toot his own horn,” it’s more likely Dittmer will instead organize a game of Ultimate Frisbee for after class.

Dittmer hit the books Sept. 2 with an estimated 4,684 fellow freshmen – about 80 percent of the students that received acceptance letters from BYU this year. U.S. News currently ranks BYU #1 in a tie with Harvard for the rate of admitted students who enroll. It’s one way of measuring the popularity of a school among its applicants.

For Dittmer, the deciding factor was purely academic.

“BYU has a lot of great math professors, and I learned that they would have lots of opportunities for me to work one-on-one with them and do my own research,” Dittmer said. “That’s what excited me about BYU. I probably wouldn’t get to do that as an undergrad at a place like Stanford.”

The math department is not alone in creating an atmosphere attractive to smart, motivated students like Dittmer. Mentored research experiences are offered across campus to give undergraduates the kind of opportunities normally reserved for grad students on other campuses. To support student mentoring in the 2007-08 academic year, the university awarded $543,600 to 302 undergraduates whose research proposals merited grants. BYU also gave more than $1.6 million to 95 faculty members for projects involving undergraduates.

Dittmer will also seek to duplicate for BYU his record of success in national math Olympiads. As a high school sophomore, Dittmer was invited to join an Indiana team preparing for the American Regions Mathematics League. The team practiced on Sundays, so Dittmer got approval from the coaches for alternative preparations that did not conflict with his religious observance.

At the competition, Dittmer and a few dozen other contestants survived the first seven questions of the individual round. The eighth and final question asked the odds of successfully routing a message through five interconnected computers if a coin flip determines whether each connection is on or off. When time ran out, Dittmer finished ahead of the pack in dramatic fashion as the only contestant with the correct answer of 91/128.

BYU’s math department chair expects great things from BYU’s undergraduate math team this season, noting their 18th-place finish among U.S. and Canadian schools in 2006.

“We have a really strong student returning from a mission this year and some stars who are coming to BYU as freshmen, including Sam, so we have good reason to believe that this coming year we will do very well again,” said Tyler Jarvis, the math department chair.

Dittmer’s feat as a sophomore went largely unnoticed by his peers in Zionsville, Ind. Two years later, he could no longer avoid the spotlight when Gov. Mitch Daniels appeared at a surprise school assembly. Daniels mentioned the Hoosier state’s tradition of honoring a “Mr. Basketball” every year, then announced a new program to recognize top scholars and named Dittmer the state’s first “Mr. Math.”

Aside from a $2,000 scholarship, Dittmer jokes that the award also gives him exclusive rights to the pick-up line, “Interested in becoming Mrs. Math?” Dittmer quickly adds that he deploys the corny line only among friends who know it’s a joke and nothing more.

In the long run, Dittmer would like to pursue a Ph.D. in math. Jarvis notes that BYU is a launching pad for grad school in math and a variety of other disciplines. Recent data place BYU 5th in the nation for the number of graduates who go on to earn doctoral degrees.

The first order of business for Dittmer, though, is to play some Frisbee. That shouldn’t be difficult, given BYU’s Top-20 ranking for intramural sports participation from the Princeton Review.

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BYU freshman Sam Dittmer
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