Sunday, April 4, 2010

A tradition of encouraging great problem solving in New York and Albany!

Albany Area Math Circle is proud and honored to be the host team for the 2010 New York State Math League (NYSML) state championship math meet next Saturday, April 10. Through both time and space, both New York and Albany have a proud tradition of encouraging great problem solving.

This is what a New York State license plate looked like back in early 1970s, the early years of NYSML. But the New York State math contest tradition goes back even further. A great deal of the problem solving tradition in this country traces its origins to New York City and New York State. Albany has made contributions in expanding the growth of that movement even more broadly, building mathematical bridges that have spread connections among kindred mathematical problem solvers across the state, the country, and the world.

Richard Feynman's memoirs fondly recall his times on his high school math team in his Far Rockaway, Queens during the 1930s. He won the New York City math contest held at NYU his senior of high school. Later he would go on to the Putnam Math Competition in college, and ultimately to win the Nobel Prize in physics. His many contributions to physics include pioneering roles in the fields of nanotechnology and quantum computing, so it's especially fitting that UAlbany's College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering is sponsoring NYSML.

By the early 1950s, the New York City math contests Richard Feynman enjoyed had expanded into a statewide contest and ultimately into the national high school math contest (AHSME) now known as the American Mathematics Competitions (AMC10/12). In 1959, the International Math Olympiad, an essay-style proof based math competition started up in Eastern Europe. At first only countries behind the Iron Curtain participated. By the early 1970s, as Cold War tensions began to ease slightly, some mathematicians wondered if American students should participate. Some feared that American students were unprepared for such a rigorous contest, that they would be demoralized and unprepared.

In the early 1970s, Professor Nura Turner of UAlbany (then called Albany State Teachers College) wrote influential articles in the American Mathematics Monthly dismissing such fears, citing the decades of New York students who had developed their problem-solving abilities through participating in city and statewide math contests. In her words, "It would be possible for us to perform such a feat. We certainly must possess here in the USA the strength of character to face defeat and the capability and courage to then plunge into systematic hard training to compete again with the desire to strive for a better showing."

The Mathematical Association of America gives UAlbany's Professor Turner's advocacy much of the credit for their decision to send the first team of American students to the International Math Olympiad (IMO) in 1974. Due to the well-established tradition of math contests in New York, those early US teams had very strong representation from New York. The first US team placed second among the 18 national teams competing in 1974 in East Berlin, and Eric Lander, the captain of the Stuyvesant High School math team, brought home a silver medal from that IMO.

He went on to win a MacArthur "genius fellowship" and is currently the President and Founding Director of the Broad Institute as well as Professor of Biology at MIT.

Professor Lander will be coming to Albany later this month to share in a prestigious prize in medicine for his work in mapping the human genome. His experiences on his New York City high school math team surely contributed to the development of his problem-solving skills as well as the teamwork skills needed to accomplish the work for which he is being honored.

We are excited to host teams of the next generation of great New York State problem-solvers in Albany this coming Saturday.

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