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Prof gets lyrical about math essay contest

UCCS Olympiad gives students 4-hour test

By BRIAN NEWSOME THE GAZETTE

Alex Soifer describes math in the same words some people would use to describe Romantic literature: beautiful, elegant, exciting and surprising.

The 57-year-old math professor at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs fondly recalls his undergraduate days when students and faculty would spend hours after class working on math problems. That, he says, was when the real learning began.

It’s this love of number-riddled proofs that drove Soifer to start the UCCS Mathematical Olympiad in 1984 for middle and high school students. Despite the math scholar’s lengthy list of academic accomplishments — Soi- fer has been a visiting professor at Princeton University and has published four books — the problem-solving showdown remains the “most important thing in my life,” he said.

This year’s competition will be held Friday. About 900 students will spend four hours sweating through five complex problems for a chance to win prizes, scholarships and intellectual bragging rights.
It’s the largest essay-style math contest in the country, Soifer said, and he is the chief author of the questions. Students earn more points for the creativity shown in their work than getting a correct answer.

In a disheveled office brimming with books and papers, the professor spouted stories about past Olympiad winners. There was Mark Heim of Loveland, who went to study math and computers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology this year. Gideon Yaffe of the Colorado Springs School took first place in 1988. He went to Harvard, where he studied math and drama, and now teaches philosophy at the University of California at Berkeley.

Then there was Matthew Kahle, the C- student from Air Academy who was denied admission to UCCS. He’s finishing work for a doctorate at the University of Washington in Seattle.

The Olympiad will begin at 9 a.m. Friday at UCCS. About 100 to 150 awards will be presented April 28, also at UCCS. This year’s special guest will be Hideshi Fukaya, the lead inventor of the world’s first graphing calculator. He will present winners with one of the CASIO calculators that he designed, according to a UCCS news release.

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MARK REIS, THE GAZETTE

UCCS professor Alex Soifer began the UCCS Mathematical Olympiad in 1984 and has coordinated it annually since then. The essaystyle math contest is the largest of its kind in the nation.