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Calvin Wins Math Competition
December 5, 2005

For the seventh time in 12 years, a student team from Calvin College has won the Michigan Autumn Take-Home (MATH) Challenge.

The three-person team composed of seniors John Engbers and Phil Boonstra and junior Nathan Strong took first place in the annual, three-hour exam. Three other Calvin student teams placed sixth, seventh and 20th out of the 59 teams from 21 schools who participated in the challenge.

Engbers is a graduate of Grand Rapids Christian High, Boonstra of Calvin Christian High School in Escondido, California, and Strong of Forrest Hills Central High School.

Calvin mathematics professor Gene Klaasen is the college's adviser for the exam and notes that Calvin traditionally has done very well at the challenge since it was devised in 1994 by professors Mark Bollman of Olivet College and Timothy Sipka of Alma College.

Calvin previously won the MATH Challenge in 1994, 1995, 1996, 1997 (tied with Hope College) 2000 and in 2001 (tied with Albion College). And in every year but 1998, Calvin has had one or more teams in the challenge's top ten.

The MATH Challenge is a team-oriented, 10-problem exam that tests its takers in several areas of math expertise. Each year, the exam is mailed to participating colleges, each of which sponsors one or more teams of up to three persons.

This year's edition of the exam took place in late October and the completed exams then were mailed to one of the exam authors, Dr. Harold Reiter of the University of North Carolina, for grading.

"The most challenging problems are usually the word problems," says Boonstra, a mathematics and political science major. "They give you what looks like a really difficult problem, but there's usually some subtle trick involved that makes it fall into place really easily. So the challenge is more based in finding that trick rather than solving the actual problem, which is easy after you see what trick you need to use."

Last year Boonstra and Engbers, a mathematics education major, participated on a team that placed fourth in the MATH Challenge. Because of their previous experience, Engbers says, this year's exam was "pretty relaxed. We knew we could only do our best, but we also had good insights into the problems, which really helped."

Klaasen is proud of the student teams and of Calvin's continued impressive performance in the competition.

"We attract good students here," he says.

He also gives credit to Calvin's mathematics department and faculty, saying: "We have faculty members here who are really strong professional people and hold the bar really high."

But the mathematics itself is what draws Calvin students back to the challenge.

"It spurs an excitement and enthusiasm in mathematics," says Klaasen. "That enthusiasm is important in a world that is increasingly complicated by technology. It's analytical thinking at the heart of it. Mathematics is at the core of technology."

Plus, Klaasen adds, the students like being part of a winning tradition.

"These students volunteer to do it. They enjoy the competition. It's like sports. A good basketball player enjoys the competition. And they always want to know," he says with a twinkle, "How did Hope do?"