Eastern Washington University’s math students are unequaled in the state.
The EWU math team placed first among Washington colleges and universities in a recent national competition.
“These results are very good. We’ve never had such high performance at Eastern,” said Assistant Professor David Jabon, team adviser.
EWU placed second among all Pacific Northwest teams, behind only Reed College of Portland, and 87th out of 409 participating schools across the country.
Eric Johnson, a senior from Spokane, ranked in the top 500 out of some 2,000 competitors. He was the team’s top individual scorer.
Johnson is so good at his x’s and y’s that he has been accepted into a doctoral mathematics program at Penn State University next year. He wants to become a math researcher and professor.
The Putnam national math competition for undergraduates began in the 1930s. EWU became active in the competition four years ago when Jabon was hired from the University of Chicago.
The three-person team includes Johnson, junior Emil Kraft and junior Kelly Jahns. Another five students took the test and will be eligible to compete for spots on the team next year.
Students practiced for the test once a week during the fall.
In December, teams from around the country sat down at their own schools to take the six-hour test. Results were released last month.
The test has only 12 questions, and they are so difficult that getting all of the questions right is highly unusual, Jabon said. The individual winner nationally usually gets nine or 10 questions right.
Johnson answered two questions correctly.
Competitors not only have to give the right answer, but their answers also must include complex mathematical proofs.
The questions include elements of algebra, geometry and calculus.
Jabon said these math skills may seem remote to the general public, but complex equations are helping make life better for everyone.
For example, genetic testing uses mathematical equations. The new Boeing 777 was designed with mathematical models, and weather forecasts increasingly rely on math probabilities, he said.
“It is very sophisticated math, I can assure you,” Jabon said.