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Where do Putnam problems come from? (Prof. Andrew Bernoff)

December 8, 2021 @ 4:30 pm - 5:30 pm

Title: Where do Putnam problems come from?

Speaker: Andrew Bernoff, Department of Mathematics, Harvey Mudd College

Abstract: The William Lowell Putnam Exam is the preeminent mathematics competition for undergraduate college students in the United States and Canada. I recently finished a three year stint on the competition’s problem committee. This talk is a personal reflection on where Putnam problems come from. I’ll discuss three problems which can loosely be described as:

  • a mathematician’s viewpoint on axe throwing,
  • a model for how chickens establish a pecking order inspired by a high school math competition and a subsequent tweet by Jordan Ellenberg, and
  • a covering problem that arose from a generalization of several previous Putnam problems viewed through the lens of a mathematician obsessed with the Fourier transform.

I’ll close with some observations about best practices and pitfalls to avoid when constructing an exam whether it be for a class or a competition.

Andrew Bernoff is a Professor of Mathematics at Harvey Mudd College. While his research concentrates on using dynamical systems methods to understand experiments and natural phenomena, he has a longstanding interest in recreational mathematics and problem solving. As an undergraduate at MIT he ran the first Integration Bee, a tradition that has now continued for over four decades. More recently he just finished a three year stint on the William Lowell Putnam Exam’s problem committee.


December 8, 2021
4:30 pm - 5:30 pm
Event Category:


Christina Edholm