Problems? No Problem!

August 4, 2010

Mathematics isn’t typically thought of as a competitive sport. But try telling that to the members of BMCC’s Math Team.

For the second straight year, the team has come in first place in the AMATYC Student Math League (SML) competition (Northeast Region), dominating a roster of schools from New York, Massachusetts, Vermont, Rhode Island, New Hampshire and Connecticut. Founded by AMATYC (American Mathematical Association of Two-Year Colleges) in 1970, the SML today comprises some 165 colleges and 8,000 students in 35 states.

In addition, team member Xian-Zhen Zhu finished first in the SML individual competition and an impressive second in this year’s CUNY Math Challenge, outpacing a strong field of two- and four-year colleges. 

“The problems the team trains on are not the kind they would ever see in a math class,” says Assistant Math Professor Jason Samuels, one of the team’s two faculty coaches. The other is Assistant Math Professor Michael George. “Rather, they’re designed to test creative problem-solving, a skill that comes into play in every aspect of our lives.”

Exercises in logic

Training takes place each Wednesday during club hours. “The problems we work on tend to be more about logic than straight math,” says Baruch College-bound business major Si Si Cui, one of several team members to place in the top 10 in the SML competition. Owen O’Leary, the team’s unofficial captain, agrees. “The problems are really logic puzzles,” he says. “And I love solving puzzles.”

While the team members have highly developed gifts for math, logic and quantitative thinking as well as a fierce competitive drive — all say their winning ways owe much to the encouragement, support and expertise of coaches Samuels and George.

“They’re great about preparing us for our training sessions,” says Sheng-en Zhan, who placed second in the SML individual competition. “When we show up, they’ve printed out the problems and we’re ready to start working.”

Xian-Zhen Zhu, known to his teammates and friends as “King,” says that Samuels and George have been especially effective at teaching the members shortcuts to solutions. “That’s important, since we have to solve 20 problems in an hour in the SML competition,” says the Shanghai-born math major, who has been known to begin conversations with random strangers in Times Square to practice his English. Why “King?” “Because that was the first English word I learned—and because when people call me King, I feel more confident,” he says.

Working with the best and brightest

For George and Samuels, coaching the math team has yielded rich personal and professional rewards. “I consider myself fortunate to have a chance to work with some of BMCC’s best and brightest each week,” says George who, like Samuels, tries to stay in touch with team members after graduation. Some of those contacts have proven especially gratifying.

“Just the other day, a former math team member named Ho Jin showed up outside my classroom to say hello,” says George. “I hadn’t seen him in two years.” Jin, who is Korean, was also a student in George’s math class. “I remember the first test I gave,” says George. “He finished ahead of time, turned in his paper, bowed down and said, ‘I’m ashamed—I can’t understand the English and can’t do the test.’ He got a grade of zero. Two semesters later, he got the BMCC record-high score on the test.”

Jin went on to earn a Bachelors degree in computer science from Stony Brook and will soon return to Korea where he and his girlfriend plan to marry. She too is a former BMCC Math Team member.


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  • Math team takes first place in the AMATYC Student Math League
  • Team excels at creative problem-solving
  • Focus is on logic-based problems rather than “straight math”

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