February 17, 2018

Each year, the American Mathematical Association of Two-Year Colleges (AMATYC) sponsors a regional mathematics competition to provide students an opportunity to measure themselves against other community and technical college students, and to build excitement about math, in general.

Century College students traditionally have excelled at the annual Student Math League Contest, but this year, they went above and beyond. Century College students Ryan Gao, Van Tran, and Thach Nguyen earned the first, second, and third best scores in Minnesota, respectively—the first time this has happened at Century College in 29 years.

The competition, which occurs in the fall and the spring, combines the scores of the first two rounds to calculate a cumulative score. Over 100 students from Century College competed in the Central Region Competition, which is comprised of 16 community and technical colleges. While teams hailed from schools across the Midwest, Minnesota community and technical colleges formed almost half of all participating schools.

While Century College’s team score finished a close second to Normandale Community College, Gao finished with the highest score in the central region, receiving 38.5 out of 40 points. 

Gao’s result doesn’t come as a surprise to Century College math instructor Peter Gits. “He’s very sharp, and has a great mathematical mind,” said Gits. “He can go very far.”

A Surprising Award Ceremony

For their success in the math contest, a ceremony was held by Century College on April 24 honoring top-performing students and awarding them with cash prizes.

Nguyen, an electrical engineering major, was surprised to hear his name called.

“I was so happy,” said Nguyen. “I knew that I placed somewhere at Century College, but I didn’t know I was third in the state.”

Tran, who also studies engineering, had a similar reaction.

“I did not expect that I’d done that well,” said Tran. “I was very proud to be the only girl with a top score.”

Century College math instructor Brian Peterman, who moderated the ceremony, couldn’t have been more pleased with the students’ performance and the turnout.

“It was great to see how well our students had done and the kind of interest we had,” said Peterman. “In past years, we’ve been lucky to have 20 or 30 students show up. Getting 100 students to come late in the afternoon for a math competition – I get excited about that.”

An Unusual Competition

One of the main goals of the math contest is to identify exceptional mathematical talent, so the problems are atypical and quite difficult.

“They’re hard questions – they’re not textbook math problems,” said Peterman. “These are questions that no standard techniques are going to crack. You need to be creative.”

“Two pretty good algebra students will do widely different on this contest depending on how insightful and clever they are,” said Peterman. “You can’t measure that on an algebra test. The people who are getting high scores in this contest are unusually talented. They’re really gifted people.”

The math competition also identifies unusually hardworking students, as in the case of Nguyen. Nguyen began preparing for the contest two months in advance during the fall and spring semesters, studying frequently, completing books filled with past contest problems, and coming to Peterman’s office regularly for help.   

“I consider myself more of a hardworking person than a talented person. That’s just how I am,” said Nguyen. “For me, it’s more about working hard than being smart.”

A Stepping Stone to Bigger Things

For many of the students that excel in the math contest, their success inspires them to continue to pursue bigger things. 

“For me, accomplishment in math is greater than anything else,” said Nguyen. “Knowing that I got third place means a lot to me. It’s encouraged me to do math and pursue my degree in electrical engineering.”

Nguyen, an international student from Vietnam, hopes that he can use his degree to return home one day and help his country.

“There are many ways to change the world,” said Nguyen. “Mathematics is my strength, so electrical engineering is what I choose to make the world better.”