Nov 29, 2012

Competing against nearly 400 contestants from a slew of local high schools, Amy Chou ’16 placed sixth at the biannual Harvard-Massachusetts Institute of Technology Mathematics Tournament (HMMT) on November 10.

Chou traveled with five other Andover students to the event, which featured two individual rounds and two team rounds. As a team, Andover finished 26th out of 80 competing teams. Chou’s individual score earned her a sixth-place finish.

Chou said that one of the problems on the second individual test was similar to one that she had studied while training at Math Club meetings. However, Chou credits most of her success at HMMT to prior competitive experience because tailoring practice to such a broad competition is difficult.

“The skills and ideas that I learned from past experiences… were the most valuable on the day of the competition,” said Chou.

“In class, you do a section, and the homework you get for it is all about the section. But for competition math, it doesn’t really test you on your knowledge, it tests you on cleverness, I guess. For example, for some [Math] Olympiad problems, they try to make it so a fourth grader wouldn’t be discriminated against, versus a college professor. You don’t need calculus and all these fancy tools to solve it. It’s all conceptual,” said Chou.

In the past, Chou has participated in contests organized by the American Regions Math League (ARML), Math Prize for Girls, Mathcounts, American Math Competitions (AMC), American Invitational Mathematics Examination (AIME) and United States of America Mathematical Olympiad (USAMO).

“I like how [math] is so simple. It uses simple things to solve harder things. At the same time, it’s so beautiful. It assumes a perfect world and it really lets you see the completeness of things. Some of the proofs are just really inspiring,” said Chou.

Chou began participating in math competitions in sixth grade, but she traces her passion for the subject back to her parents, who both work in Science Technology Engineering Mathematics (STEM) fields. Chou took calculus at the Montana State University, where her mother teaches, as an eighth grader.

“[My love for math] started when I was really young. My mom is a professor of math education so I guess math has always been a really big part of my life,” said Chou.

Chou, who is currently taking Multivariable Calculus (Math 661) as a Junior, sees math as a prominent part of her future. She intends to participate in future HMMT events and other national competitions and is interested in pursuing a career involving math.

“[Multivariable calculus] really lets you rethink calculus. Usually in calculus you just look [at] something, a theorem, and you don’t really think about it again. You don’t really think about how it can be expanded but in multivariable calculus it’s all about going more into those.”

“Placing sixth definitely was a nice surprise, but even if I had not done so well, I would have had just as much fun at HMMT and met just as many amazing people,” said Chou. “I owe my performance to many factors, including luck and the support of my teachers, teammates, parents and friends.”

She added, “I come from Montana, where there aren’t many opportunities to participate in competitions like HMMT. I hope that now I will have a chance to have many more of these experiences.”

The “General Test,” the first of the individual tests, consisted of 10 questions on elementary mathematics such as algebra, geometry, combinatorics and number theory, according to Chou. Scoring 28 points out of 50, Chou placed 11th in the round.

The “Theme Test,” the second individual exam, was split into two sections of five themed questions, according to Chou. This year, the first section, titled “Power Towers,” included problems involving numbers raised to exponents that were also raised to exponents. The other section, titled “Rock-Paper-Scissors,” consisted of probability problems. Chou finished fifth in the round with a score of 36 out of 50.

For each individual round, students were given 50 minutes to complete the 10 problems without the aid of calculators, according to Chou.

The combination of Chou’s eleventh and fifth-place finishes earned her sixth place overall in the individual competition.

The competition at Harvard is the first of two HMMT competitions that take place each year. The second tournament, which takes place in February at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), welcomes teams from all over the country and world, according to Donald Barry, Instructor in Math and Faculty Advisor to Math Club.

Barry said that Andover generally sends one or two teams of six to the November contest and two teams of eight to the February contest.

However, Barry added, “The most important thing is that the kids get to participate in a math contest and that is very satisfying.”

At this year’s November competition, Chou was joined by Lily Grossbard ’15, Eric Zhang ’14, Di Ouyang ’15, Joyce Wang ’15 and Lincoln Herrington ’16.

In the first team round, groups spent an hour collaborating to solve ten questions. Andover finished 30th out of 80 teams in the round, according to Chou.

At the beginning of the second team round, known as the “Guts Round,” each group received a set of three problems. If they correctly solved all three, they would receive another three. The problems were graded on the spot and the round’s live results were projected on a screen, according to Chou. Each team continued to receive new problem sets until they made a mistake or exhausted all 36 problems. Andover completed 27 problems, finishing 16th in the round.

Although in past years candidates for HMMT teams have been narrowed down by New England Mathematics League (NEML) and AMC scores, all students who expressed interest this year were able to attend the tournament, according to Chou.

Students from Andover have performed well at HMMT in the past. In 2010, Brian Wagner ’14 and Jong Wook Kim ’13 placed in second and sixth place, respectively, as individuals, according to the HMMT website.