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Math title boosts Duke's standing

by Monte Basgall

A study by three Duke undergraduates of methods to address grade inflation was selected as best research paper in the14th annual Mathematical Contest in Modeling (MCM), an event that pitted their paper against about 470 others from around the world.

Modeling team captain W. Garrett Mitchener, a Duke junior, sophomore Jeffrey Mermin and freshman John Thacker will travel to Toronto in July to present their 29-page analysis at Mathfest 98, a Mathematics Association of America conference.

"We think our methods avoid penalizing people too much for taking classes with other students who do very well, which is better than simply ranking on a curve," Thacker said in an interview. "It's a big problem if you take a difficult class and score worse than anyone else, but the other 10 people in the class are the best students in the university.

"You don't want to penalize people too much because they never had the chance to show themselves in a very difficult class. You do want to penalize people somewhat for taking an easy schedule."

The trio's study addressed concerns about grade inflation at a hypothetical university where the average grade is an A-minus, precluding use of grade point averages (GPAs) to determine class rank. "The plain GPA method encourages students to take easy courses, a major cause of grade inflation," their paper said. "Plain GPA rankings also produce a lot of ties, especially when most of the grades are high."

The MCM is sponsored by the Consortium for Mathematics and Its Applications.

Working from the morning of Feb.6 to the afternoon of Feb. 9, when the contest was held throughout the world, the three Duke students came up with alternatives to the GPA, each based oncomputing an "ability score" that can account for talent while making allowances for effort. This is Duke's best finish ever in the mathematical modeling contest, which ranks in prestige second only to the William Lowell Putnam Mathematical Competition, said David Kraines, a Duke associate professor of mathematics.

Duke placed second to perennial favorite Harvard in the latest Putnam competition, held last Dec 6, bringing $20,000 to the university's undergraduate mathematics program and $800 to each of its three team members, senior Noam Shazeer, junior Andrew Dittmer and freshman Jonathan (Nathan) Curtis. Putnam team members also won additional cash awards based on their individual performances.

While the MCM provides no cash awards for universities or their top place finishers, success there says much for participants' talent as researchers, Kraines added. "There isn't any solution to these problems, as there are no solutions in nature to most problems," he said. "There are no answers in the back of the book, as there are in the Putnam.

"In some respects, the mathematics contest in modeling prepares students much more for the real world of research. These are the sorts of problems that a graduate student might take on for a masters thesis, except that they have only three days to do it."

The students, who were permitted to use computer programs and consult a linear algebra textbook, seemed to have weathered the grueling competition in stride. "We worked from about 10 a.m. to about 10 or 11 p.m. for three days and part of Monday (Feb. 9)," said Mermin, of Chapel Hill. "We actually managed to get decent amounts of sleep at night, which I hadn't expected to do."

Mitchener, of Charlotte, and Thacker, of Durham, both attended Durham's North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics, a special public high school for talented state residents, while Mermin attended Chapel Hill High School. All three were acquainted with each other through math contests before coming to Duke.

"Duke is developing the reputation that it's a good place for strong math students," said Mitchener. "So the Duke math department and the student population are starting to build on each other."

Meanwhile, professors said Duke's second place showing in the latest Putnam competition also emphasizes the university's growing stature in undergraduate mathematics. "We did as well this year as we did last year," said Gregory Lawler, who coached the 1997 team. "Harvard did better."

Duke won the Putnam in 1996 and 1993. While Harvard edged it out this time, Duke ranked higher than top contenders Princeton, MIT and Washington University. And two of Duke's team members, Curtis and Dittmer, came in ninth and 14th, respectively, in individual rankings.

While more than half of the 2,500 top math students who took the latest Putnam scored a 1 or a 0, "our lowest scoring student got a 10, which still put him in the upper third of the country," Lawler added. Moreover, three Duke freshmen finished in the top 100, and eight undergraduates finished in the top 200.

Lawler and Kraines said increasing numbers of top high school students who frequent the math contest circuit are now following their friends to Duke, guaranteeing a strong slate of contenders in future Putnams and MCMs.

"One thing that Duke has over Harvard for some of these students is the fact that we offer merit scholarships," Lawler added. "We got some of our first top students through these scholarships."

Just last week, it was announced that Mitchener, the modeling contest team captain, has won a prestigious Goldwater Scholarship covering up to $7,500 in tuition, room and board and other expenses during his senior year.