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Mathletes repeat history

BYU > Yale, Princeton in math's "Big Dance"

As a national math champion in high school with offers from Stanford and MIT, Sam Dittmer came to BYU with lofty expectations.

He didn’t disappoint, making school history two years in a row.

The senior student-mathlete once again led BYU a top 10 ranking in the prestigious William Lowell Putnam Mathematical Competition, an annual contest involving more than 500 universities in the U.S. and Canada. The previous best for BYU on the Putnam exam was an 11th place finish in 1979. 

“Sam is an incredibly hard worker, who has grown a lot in his time here at BYU,” said Pace Nielsen, a BYU math professor. “Over the past two years he has worked as one of my undergraduate research students and has published three papers, one of which he wrote on his own!”

Dittmer and his teammates – Peter Baratta and Robert Yang – beat traditional powerhouses like Yale, Princeton and UCLA in the grueling six-hour exam. The exam is so challenging it takes three months to grade the results from the 5,000 contestants. Dittmer led BYU in scoring with 52 points and Baratta scored 40 points.

It’s been an incredible journey for Dittmer. After a sensational freshman season that saw BYU crack the Top 25, he laid down his calculator for a two-year Church mission in Albania. He shook off the “mission rust” in a sophomore campaign that drew the attention of The Washington Post thanks to his role in a music video that has more than 100,000 views on YouTube.

Dittmer graduates from BYU this month and is weighing offers from UCLA and Cal-Berkeley for their math Ph.D. programs. While he’s going to leave big shoes to fill, BYU math professors are finding that success breeds success.

From 2006 to 2012, the number of math majors at BYU nearly doubled and the number of students competing in the Putnam tripled. This year more than 80 undergraduate students did mentored-research projects with math professors.

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,” said Tyler Jarvis, the former department chair who originally recruited Dittmer. “We’ve shown how fun math can be and that they can find a great career.”

The Putnam test isn't meant to be fun - it's meant to be hard. Problem 1 below is the "easiest" from this year's exam.

Story Highlights

  • BYU Mathletes ranked in the Top 10 among schools from the U.S. and Canada 
  • It's their second year in a row in the Top 10 and the second time in BYU history

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Mathlete throw-back: Sam Dittmer chose BYU in 2008 over MIT and Stanford. He has led the school to consecutive top 10 rankings in an international math competition.

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2012-2013 Mathletes: Peter Baratta (right) has been a part of the only two BYU teams to rank in the top 10.

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2011-2012 Mathletes: Robert Yang (right) competed two years ago on a team that finished in the top 25 and on this year's squad that made the top 10.
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