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Who Wants to Be a Mathematician at the University of Arizona

University of Arizona campus

"Thank you so much for everything! Thank you also for the materials! I loved that most of the contestants chose peers instead of their teachers to be their lifeline."

"Cholla High was so honored to be a part of this contest. It was really a lot of fun, and out of 9 students in my AP Calc. class, 7 came to the contest to cheer for Jun. It was also very good for the other students (and me!) to see the kind of questions you asked. They were great questions. So keep doing what you are doing to inspire and reward young math students. Sometimes, I just need to see math minds at work like I did on Saturday, because I, too, get inspired."

"We had a great time! All of our students enjoyed the Math Talk and were challenged by the questions that were asked during the competition. It was a great opportunity and we appreciate the work that you did arranging it."

Richard Spence of the Sonoran Science Academy won US$3000 when the University of Arizona's Institute for Mathematics and Education hosted Who Wants to Be a Mathematician on November 15. Two games with five players each were held that morning and followed a talk by Ken Ono, University of Wisconsin Solle P. and Margaret Manasse Professor of Letters and Science and the Hilldale Professor of Mathematics. In his lecture, Ken gave the audience a tour through some of Srinivasa Ramanujan's results, mostly in number theory.

The contestants are pictured below with Who Wants to Be a Mathematician emcee and AMS Public Awareness Officer Mike Breen.


Front row, left to right:

  • Julie Zhang, University High School
  • Mike, AMS
  • Jun Yeon Lee, Cholla High Magnet School
  • Elizabeth Toller, Empire High School
  • Sean Topping, Buena High School

Back row, left to right:

  • Sean Ross, Marana High School
  • Ian Montijo, Sabino High School
  • Benjamin Ferell, Canyon del Oro High School
  • Sean Campbell, Basis Tucson Upper School
  • Richard Spence, Sonoran Science Academy

(Not pictured: Dixie Bungard, Tucson High Magnet School)


Dixie and Jun
Dixie and Jun

Richard was the winner of game one, answering every question correctly. Elizabeth Toller finished second, and had a rooting section (some of whom are pictured below) with some impressive signs.

Richard, Elizabeth, and Sean Topping
Richard, Elizabeth, and Sean (Topping)

In fact, many of the people who came to root for the contestants came up with some good signs and clever t-shirts. Not only were the audience members well-appointed, but they were smart as well, choosing the correct answer whenever asked (after the contestants had answered).

Empire rooters
Some of Elizabeth's rooting section

Rooters from Basis Tucson Upper School
Some of Sean Campbell's rooting section

Some of the Canyon del Oro rooting section
Some of the Canyon del Oro High School rooting section, still in campaign mode

Some Sabino rooters
Some of the Sabino High School rooting section


Sean Campbell and Benjamin
Sean (Campbell) and Benjamin

Game two was very close. Julie Zhang was the winner, edging out Sean Campbell (by 100 points), and Benjamin Ferrell. Although he didn't finish first, Ian Montijo did entertain the crowd with the way he managed his signaling device and by doing "Rock, Paper, Scissors" with his contestant helper.

Ian, Sean Ross, and Julie
Ian, Sean (Ross), and Julie


The two game winners, Richard and Julie, then moved to the Square-Off Round, in which the first person to answer a question correctly moves on to the Bonus Round and a chance at $2000. Richard answered the question before all the choices had been revealed. His answer was correct and so he earned a shot at the Two-Grand Prize Bonus Question.

Entering this round, Richard had yet to miss a Who Wants to Be a Mathematician question, from the qualifying test through the day's competition. That performance is made even more astounding by the fact that Richard is only in the ninth grade.

Richard in the Bonus Round

In the Bonus Round, Richard thought very carefully, registering his answer after about two minutes had elapsed. When time had expired, Richard explained his choice but seemed a little unhappy. He said that he had wished he'd made a different choice.

"Do you still want to see what the correct answer is, or would you rather not see it?" asked Mike.

"No, I want to see it."

When Richard saw it, it turned out that his choice was correct (good thing time was up by the time he doubted himself), so he had won $2000 in the Bonus Round in addition to his previous winnings in game one and the Square-Off Round.

Julie, Mike, and Richard

Here are the prizes won by the ten contestants:

  • TI-Nspire graphing calculator from Texas Instruments, and $3000 from the AMS: Richard Spence
  • TI-Nspire graphing calculator from Texas Instruments and $500 from the AMS: Julie Zhang
  • Maple 12 from Maplesoft: Elizabeth Toller and Sean Campbell
  • Calculus with Early Transcendentals by Anton, Bivens and Davis from John Wiley and Sons: Sean Topping and Benjamin Ferell
  • What's Happening in the Mathematical Sciences from the AMS: Dixie Bungard and Sean Ross
  • Five-Minute Mathematics from the AMS: Jun Yeon Lee and Ian Montijo

The AMS thanks the University of Arizona's Institute for Mathematics and Education for hosting the event and Teresa Stovall for the many arrangements she made (including lining up the many most excellent refreshments and snacks), the National Science Foundation for its support of this event, and sponsors Texas Instruments, Maplesoft, and John Wiley and Sons, for their continued support of Who Wants to Be a Mathematician. Thanks also to the families, friends, and teachers of the contestants who formed a delightful audience for Ken Ono's talk and for the game.

Photographs by Who Wants to Be a Mathematician judge and co-creator Bill Butterworth (DePaul University Department of Mathematical Sciences) and Mike Breen.

Find out more about Who Wants to Be a Mathematician.