The Math Team Breaks Records at PUMaC

The New York City Math Team recently celebrated their success at the Princeton University Mathematics Competition on November 16.

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By Brian Sterr

The New York City Math Team (NYCMT) sent 19 Stuyvesant students and six Hunter College High School students to the Princeton University Mathematics Competition (PUMaC), a national student-run mathematics competition at Princeton University on November 16. Among the three teams of eight students from NYC, two of them placed in the top 10: team Tin Man placed third, and team Scarecrow placed 10th. In addition, there were seven finalists from NYC, most of whom are Stuyvesant students: sophomore Rishabh Das; juniors Srinath Mahankali, Theo Schiminovich, Ethan Joo, Max Vaysburd, and Mario Tutuncu-Macias; and Hunter College High School student Tovi Wen.

PUMaC consists of four parts: a power round, two individual tests, a team round, and a live round. For each section, every question gets progressively harder. The power round is a week-long, challenging, college-level proof-based contest with 25 pages of background information and questions. This year’s power round, a three-part graph theory and probability contest, was held the week prior to the other sections.

For the individual rounds, each member chooses two eight-question tests from the topics of algebra, combinatorics, number theory, and geometry. The individual tests are based on a scale in which questions with fewer scorers and thus are of a higher difficulty have greater point value.

The third round, the team round, is a 15-question, 40-minute contest where teams may submit answers to questions graded out of four, five, or six points. Teams receive no penalty for an incorrect four-point question answer, a two-point penalty for every incorrect five-point question answer, and an eight-point penalty for every incorrect six-point question answer.

In the final round, the live round, teams are given one hour to complete nine sets of three questions. All teams are situated in one large room, and all scores are updated on a large screen in the front as each set is submitted. Teams may only receive one set at a time and cannot change their answers after moving on to the next set.

The teams performed exceptionally well despite that several star members graduated last year. The top team placed third overall—the highest it has ever finished—and NYC was the only city in the nation to have two teams in the top 10. “We were sad to see [the seniors] go, and there were a few of us [who] were really concerned that without these strong mathematicians and leaders, we would not reach the same heights as we did last year. I think that this year shows that not only will we reach the same heights, but also we’ll do better. I’m very optimistic about [competitions] later on in the school year,” senior and captain Akash Das said.

Math teacher Stan Kats, one of the head coaches of the NYCMT and the Stuyvesant math team, was thrilled by the results. He knows that while all the students have worked extremely hard, winning boils down to luck at a certain level. “I understand the Stuyvesant mentality—they always have to be the best—but that’s a really toxic mentality. It comes down to luck. Sometimes, you’re going to have a good day because you recognize the questions, but [other times], you’re not [going to] have that great of a day. Mostly what it means is that as long as you stay in the top five, you’re in the company of really outstanding national teams, and you’ll always have a chance to win,” he said. “And if it happens, great. If it doesn’t, I’m not going to be any less proud of the kids.”

Kats was especially surprised by the number of finalists. In the past, the NYCMT has never had more than two finalists at PUMaC. “I think the part that freaked me out was that NYC was in its prime a few years ago, [with] one or two qualifiers. Even that disappeared for a while, and then two years ago, we had one qualifier,” he said. “I would never [have] bet on seven [students making tiebreakers]. Students could have made any bets that they wanted, and I would have accepted them because I would’ve thought there was a zero percent chance.”

Kats was not only shocked by the number of qualifiers, but by their ages as well. “We ended up with seven qualifiers, and as assistant coach Lori Leu (’17) pointed out, the scariest thing is that none of them were seniors, which shows that the teams should be just as strong next year, which is kind of nuts,” Kats said.

The finalists were also surprised by the results. “I knew I got a six [out of eight on the number theory individual contest], so I knew I did well, but I didn’t think it would be enough to make individual finals,” Tutuncu-Macias said.

Math team members are expressing confidence in the team’s potential as they continue to improve. “I am very excited for the future of NYCMT,” Rishabh Das said. As all seven individual qualifiers were sophomores and juniors, he “not only [hopes] but expects [the NYCMT] to succeed for years to come.”

Though none of the seniors on the team placed individually, they are enthusiastic about their teammates’ success and optimistic about the team’s future. “This year, because of my seniority, I had a different role, which is to guide younger students on the teams. I am very proud of them. There’s always a stigma every year that when one year graduates, the team is hesitant about whether it’s going to be able to land on its feet. But this year, we’ve seen seven kids make it,” Akash Das said. “As seniors, we take pride in our younger students and their abilities. [It’s] looking like a good future.”

Every team member’s dedication to math and teamwork greatly contributed to the math team’s success. “Out of all our practices, including the Saturday, weekend, [and Friday] practices, we’ve only not had a full team once,” senior and math team captain Nancy Kuang said. “The only thing that sets us apart from other teams, not just in NYC but around the country, is [that] we have a group of people who only do math, and we don’t really have that many extracurriculars that we would miss math team for.”

Kuang also emphasized the special bond she has developed with members of the math team through math team practices and Whole Foods sessions. “I don't know if I’ll find another community like this one, where people stay after school [at Whole Foods until 8:00 p.m. or 9:00 p.m. twice a week] even though they don’t have to and go to [room] 407 during their frees just to do math,” she said.

Just as she finds inspiration in her fellow teammates, Kuang also finds inspiration in the underclassmen as their captain. “They’re so willing to collaborate with each other and [learn]. And I guess that’s what makes the Stuyvesant math team so great. It’s that people are constantly improving in the way that they want to work as a community and [improving] not just individually, but as a group as well,” she said.

This is Akash Das and Kuang’s final year with the NYCMT, and both have enjoyed their experiences at competitions like PUMaC. “I’ve been to a lot of math camps and a lot of competitions, so I’ve made a lot of friends from outside New York City, from all over the country. And every math competition like this nation[al] competition, I get to see them and catch up, which is always a lot of fun,” Akash Das said. “Another part I really like is just the joy of competing. We work really hard every week, and it’s always good to see the hard work pay off.”

Kats is very proud of all his students, and seeing them win was especially touching for him, as many of them do not often see their efforts paying off. “Because of the mentality of the school, there are always kids who work super hard, and a lot of times they’re not old [enough,] or it’s not reaffirmed that their work is actually paying off,” he said.

“These kids stay on Mondays and Wednesdays after school, and they stay on Fridays till 6:30 p.m., and they do math on weekends. And until you actually go to competitions and see how you do, you’re always going to have a little bit of doubt like, ‘Do I know this stuff?’ And to see them actually get confirmation of [their] progression and the work that they put in [is] what made me happiest,” Kats said.

Overall, both Kats and the math team students were glad to see the team succeed at PUMaC. “Hard work pays off. I don’t throw around the word ‘pride’ that often. It’s very seldom I tell someone I’m proud of them, and a lot of the times I just forget to say it, or I don’t think to say it,” Kats said. “But this is a moment [where] I’m definitely proud of the kids, and I want them to know. If you work at it, you’ll be able to accomplish.”