The limelight is tricky for many star athletes, but fame’s learning curve is no problem for a trio of star mathletes.
A year after their rap music video caught the nation’s attention, the BYU mathletes lived up to the hype with a 7th place finish in the nation’s mathematical equivalent of March Madness – beating out math powerhouses such as Stanford, Cal-Tech, Duke, Michigan and UC-Berkeley along the way.
“This means a lot – it tells the world that we are doing great things here,” said BYU math professor Tyler Jarvis. “They’re going to have to take us seriously now that our name is up there with the big boys.”
BYU undergrads Hiram Golze, Sam Dittmer and Peter Baratta wrote their way into BYU’s record books with their performance in the William Lowell Putnam Mathematical Competition. Since 1938, thousands of the nation’s top college math students compete annually in this grueling six-hour exam. It’s so challenging that sometimes half the participants don’t score a single point.
The Cougars were led by a 50-point effort from the senior Golze. When the final seconds ticked off the clock, it finally hit home that his days competing for BYU were over.
“I stayed in the room where we took the test for a while, talking with my teammates, kind of like someone playing their last football game might stay on the field for a bit longer after the game than normal to soak in the final moments,” Golze said.
Entering the season, both Dittmer and Golze had secured spots on the three-student roster. For Dittmer, beating Stanford proved especially sweet. As a national math champ in high school, Dittmer received offers from Stanford and MIT but ultimately signed with BYU.
“I don't talk a lot of trash or anything like that,” Dittmer said. “But we've been working towards this Top 10 finish for years, trying to show that we can compete with the top programs in the country and it paid off."
Forty other students vied for the final spot on the team, and the suspense lasted beyond kickoff. The Mathematical Association of America allows any college student to compete individually, but the three students whose scores will represent their school need to be designated in advance.
Coach Tiancheng Ouyang gave sophomore Peter Baratta the nod but kept the selection secret until the exam ended. Baratta didn’t disappoint, as both he and Dittmer chipped in 41 points.
As a result, the team eclipsed the 1979 BYU squad’s 11th place finish for the best mark in school history. It’s also the fifth consecutive season in the Top 25 for the BYU Mathletes – also a school record. Expect no drop-off next year, as Dittmer returns for his senior season and Baratta will compete as a junior.
“We’ve been quietly orbiting near the Top 10 for quite a few years now,” Jarvis said. “I don’t think it’s going to be our last time in the Top 10, either. We’ve got good students, coaches and recruiting.”
With the nation facing a shortage of graduates in STEM programs (science, technology engineering and mathematics), BYU’s math department offers a blueprint for success. Jarvis served as BYU’s math department chair from 2006 to 2012. In that span, the number of math majors at BYU nearly doubled and the number of students competing in the Putnam tripled.
A study sponsored by the National Science Foundation also named BYU one of the best universities for learning calculus. The research didn’t just measure how well students learned the subject – it also looked at how much they enjoyed it.
“We realized long ago that a lot of people don’t choose math because of a bad experience they had with a teacher,” Jarvis said. “We’ve shown how fun math can be and that they can find a great career.”
BYU also sponsors junior high and high school math competitions as well as a regional university-level competition. It’s not just for the thrill of scholastically trouncing a pair of sports rivals, although the students celebrate their streak of wins over Boise State and the University of Utah. The higher purpose is to draw more students in the rising generation to a discipline that’s critical to our future.
Three cheers for our three mathletes!