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USAMO Winners Celebrated—And Challenged

What do you do for kids who win everything?

The 12 highest scorers on the 2014 United States of America Mathematical Olympiad (USAMO) have not only bested their peers in math competitions across the globe. They have dominated Olympiads in physics, chemistry, and computer science and won their share of music awards too.

For example, among the top USAMO competitors, James Tao placed first for solo piano at the Illinois Music Association Annual Olympic Contest and Alexander Whatley took a silver medal at the International Chopin Competition.

These kids are celebrities in some circles: The president of mathematics honor society Mu Alpha Theta reports that, due to David Stoner’s impressive performance in regional math contests, the South Carolina junior has a fan club at a Birmingham high school.

So what do you do for such perennial winners? If you’re James Madison University mathematics professor Laura Taalman, you give them a taste of failure. Or try to.

MAA traditionally celebrates the USAMO winners with a day of events in Washington, D.C. Morning remarks by MAA executives and attending sponsors lead into a presentation by an invited mathematician. Laura Taalman spent her allotted hour conducting a 3D-printing workshop. The students worked in groups to design objects Taalman would later print on the Afinia she’d brought along.

Before she loosed the 11—Nipun Pitimanaaree was unable to attend—on laptops preloaded with modeling software, Taalman set realistic expectations for the activity.

She explained the potential pitfalls of trying to 3D-print objects with overhangs. Since the printer lays down plastic one thin layer at a time, it has to build temporary supports for components that stick out from the object’s center. She passed around two versions of the same die, one printed with supports and one not.

“This is a story of failure,” Taalman said. “And we’ll all be failing a little bit today.”

She continued: “I have a feeling that you 11 are maybe not used to failure, so . . . welcome to my world, in which there will be much failure.”

That said, Taalman told the students she hoped to print the groups’ models in time to present the objects to them before the evening program.

Circling the room as the groups worked, Taalman saw the USAMO winners contend with the same obstacles that confront all her 3D-printing students: basic alignment issues, design problems, unfamiliar coding syntax.

The evening program had Taalman in a black dress, the winners sporting ties and dark jackets. They, along with representatives of the sponsors of the USAMO, gathered at the U.S. Department of State. MAA President Robert Devaney hung medals around the winners’ necks, and Laura DeMarco of Northwestern University delivered a richly illustrated talk titled “Numerical Patterns and Chaos.” Attendees enjoyed drinks, hors d’oeuvres, and the view from the Secretaries of State Terrace, then sat down to a three-course meal.  

John Holdren, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, congratulated the winners; awards were presented; and leading sponsors addressed the crowd.

“I hope you feel how proud everyone in this room is of you,” MathWorks Director of Engineering Mary Ann Freeman told the winners.

Proud, yes, and impressed.

Laura Taalman had indeed printed the models designed during the morning’s workshop, and three of the four had turned out flawlessly.

The printed models (photo courtesy of Laura Taalman)

One group wrote code to produce a stepped pyramid with a graceful twist. Another combined premade shapes into a rocket inside a rocket, the pair precisely sized so the smaller rocket fit snugly inside the larger but could still be removed. The two-person group of Ravi Jagadeesan and Alex Song designed a human figure with raised arms, paying particular attention, Taalman could tell, to the need for supports.

The fourth group’s perforated sphere came out lopsided, but hardly a full-out failure.

Taalman, who teaches 3D-printing classes at James Madison and founded the school’s MakerLab, has seen plenty of forays into 3D-printing end in stringy messes of plastic—“angel hair catastrophe,” she calls it.

Members of the pyramid group attributed their out-of-the-blocks success to two factors: homework and teamwork.

Josh Brakensiek came to the workshop having already experienced a common printing pitfall. After exploring the 3D-printing resources Taalman shared with the winners a few weeks before their trip to D.C, Brakensiek used the software package OpenSCAD to draft a simple snowman and sent his design to Taalman. As she predicted, the snowman’s stick-like arms failed to print.

“So although we didn’t struggle too much as a team during the workshop,” Brakensiek said, “much of that was due to the struggles I had before the workshop began.”

David Stoner was in Brakensiek’s group. “We did encounter difficulty when we couldn’t reassign a set of variables,” he said. “But together we engineered a workaround.”

“The USAMO champions are at the top of their game and I wanted to remind them that they can still try new things and fail when they have to,” Taalman said.—Katharine Merow

ABOUT USAMO

The USAMO is the pinnacle event in the sequence of increasingly challenging mathematical contests administered by the MAA's American Mathematics Competitions program. It serves to indicate the talent of those who may become leaders in the mathematical sciences of the next generation. More than 195,000 worldwide took the first contest (AMC 10 and/or AMC 12). More than 7,400 were invited to compete in the second contest, the American Invitational Mathematics Examination (AIME), and just 250 of these participants made it to the highly selective and prestigious USAMO.

ABOUT AMC

The mission of the MAA's American Mathematics Competitions is to increase interest in mathematics and to develop problem solving through a fun competition. Teachers and schools benefit from the chance to challenge students with interesting mathematical questions that are aligned with curriculum standards at all levels of difficulty. In addition, students gain the opportunity to learn and achieve through competition with students in their school and around the world.

THANKS TO THE SPONSORS

The MAA would like to thank the organizations that sponsor the USAMO and the Mathematical Olympiad Summer Programs: Simons Foundation, Akamai Foundation, The D. E. Shaw Group, MathWorks (in support of Curriculum Inspirations), Math for America, Art of Problem Solving, Inc., Jane Street Capital, Academy of Applied Science, American Mathematical Society, American Statistical Association, Casualty Actuarial Society, Google, Society of Industrial and Applied Mathematics, Conference Board of the Mathematical Sciences, Idea Math, LLC, Mu Alpha Theta, and National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. Thanks are also due to Robert Balles for his support of the 2014 Balles Prize awards.

News Date: 
Monday, June 9, 2014
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