Eighty students from high schools along the East Coast dueled over decimals at Columbia on Saturday during the first annual Columbia Math Tournament.
The marathon seven-hour tournament, hosted by Columbia University Competitions in Math, ended in triumph for A.J. Dennis, a sophomore at Bergen County Academies, who won first place in the overall competition for individuals.
His team, the Handwavers of Bergen County, N.J., also came in first. The Commerce Clause team of Hunter College High School in Manhattan came in second.
Students spent an intense day taking a series of math exams, both individually and in their teams, in Schermerhorn and Lerner halls.
“It’s really cool,” Dennis said of his victory, adding that this was the first time he had ever won the top prize in any math competition. “I’ve always got to see other people walk up there, but I’ve never been first, so that was a cool feeling.”
Co-founded this year by Engineering Student Council class vice president Jonathan Barrios and ESC class president Robert Adelson, both SEAS ’17, the competition aims to bring high school students who are enthusiastic about math to Columbia's campus. Barrios began conversations with ESC members over the summer—before he arrived at Columbia—and ESC helped organize the event this fall.
Barrios said he based the structure of the competition on similar tournaments at Harvard, Princeton, and MIT.
“These competitions are all very prestigious and challenging, and attract lots of students,” Barrios said. “I felt like bringing one here would do the school a lot of justice and attract more mathematically inclined students.”
After doing research, he decided to collaborate with the organizers of the Caltech-Harvey Mudd Math Competition to write exam questions that could be used for competitions at all three universities. Several other first-year students at Columbia, who called themselves the Problem Czars, also contributed exam questions.
The $10 registration fees from the participating high schoolers funded the entire competition.
Dennis said that performance in high-level math competitions relies primarily on long-term math studying, rather than on diligent preparation shortly beforehand.
“You don’t study for any particular math competition,” Dennis said, adding that he attends multiple math competitions each year, including the Harvard-MIT Mathematics Tournament and the Princeton University Mathematics Competition.
“Since I go to all these every single year, I’m constantly studying math and trying to better my skills,” he said.
Compared to all the other competitions he has been to, Dennis said that the Columbia tournament was “just a bit smaller,” but still “really similar to all the other university math competitions.”
The Columbia Math Tournament will continue to be held every November going forward. Adelson and Barrios are also planning to host a similar competition, called Math Majors of America Tournament for High Schools, in April 2014.
While Dennis only won a certificate—and math bragging rights—Adelson hinted at other potential benefits, stating that staff at the admissions office “seemed very receptive to the possibilities this competition will offer for Columbia’s math community and the diversity of the applicant pool in future years.”
“We will definitely reach out to admissions to see if they want some sort of list of winners or participants,” he said.
But Dennis said applying to Columbia wasn’t on his to-do list yet.
“I don’t even want to think about colleges yet,” the math whiz said.
In regard to the overall competition experience, students and teachers gave generally positive responses.
“There were a couple of hiccups because it’s their first time,” Aziz Jumash, a 10th-grade math teacher at Stuyvesant High School in New York, said. “But I think it’s a good start … I wish this competition all the best and hope we can come back again next time.”