Over the past 24 years, more than 20,000 students have participated in UNL Math Day, and another 1,600 are registered for the 25th Math Day on Nov. 20, 2014.
Hosted by the UNL Department of Mathematics, Math Day is a highly competitive event that recognizes high school students who are interested in mathematics. About 100 schools from across Nebraska attend each year, bringing anywhere from three students to the 150 students who will represent Lincoln Southeast in 2014.
“Math Day is a unique experience for both the competitors and the coaches,” said Bill Rogge, a UNL lecturer in mathematics who was once the Math Day coach at Lincoln Northeast and brought teams from 1990 to 2007. “As a coach, I relished the hours of practice our students put in to be competitive. Now I have the privilege of being a moderator for the Math Bowl. I love seeing and feeling the tension that each question brings. I look forward to each and every Math Day.”
The overall schedule for Math Day has remained the same since it began, with an opening ceremony, then the PROBE I exam, the start of the Math Bowl before lunch, PROBE II and department displays after lunch, and the rest of the bowl team rounds in the afternoon. Now, it also takes more than 250 volunteers to keep the events of Math Day running.
“When I was working for the university, I was just trying to figure out how they could possibly bring in this many kids and have a Math Day run smoothly,” said John Cockerill, a former math major and the Math Day coach for Sterling High School. “To my amazement, things pretty much went right on schedule. But, the math department has always been very precise when it comes to schedules and doing things that are beneficial to students.”
This foundation for success was set by Emeriti Professors Gordon Woodward and Rao Chivukula. Back in 1989, Jim Lewis, who was then chair of the department, asked Woodward and Chivukula to go to the Math Day hosted at Colorado State University and observe the event. After seeing firsthand the excitement at CSU, they agreed with Lewis that Math Day would be a wonderful event for UNL and agreed to be the co-directors.
In its first year in 1990, there were 562 students and 68 high schools. The winner of the first Math Day was Eric Smith, a senior at Westside High School in Omaha who is now a faculty member in mathematics at Southeast Community College. Jaclyn Kohles from Ralston was the first female student to win Math Day in 1996. As an undergraduate at UNL she won an award as the outstanding female math major in the U.S. She went on to earn a Ph.D. in mathematics at Wisconsin. The 2013 winner was Ingrid Zhang, now a senior at Lincoln East.
With the help of graduate students through 1996, Woodward and Chivukula organized Math Day until the department hired Lori Mueller.
“I started the job a few days before Math Day was held, in 1996,” Mueller said. “In 1997, my first year in charge, the Union was being renovated so the students were split between Kimball Hall and Schulte Fieldhouse. The students had to leave the buildings after the opening ceremony, walk around the Union and come back while we laid out the PROBE exams. It was mayhem.”
In Mueller’s first year, she worked hard to recruit more participants in Math Day, attracting 1,167 students and 94 schools in 1997. Mueller continued to oversee Math Day until 2013, when the staff in the Center for Science, Mathematics and Computer Education took over logistics to allow Mueller more time as an advisor.
Chivukula retired in 1999 and then Woodward retired in 2013, handing the leadership reins to faculty member Jamie Radcliffe.
Over the years, Mueller has enjoyed seeing former UNL math majors become Math Day coaches, such as Cockerill and Shelby Aaberg, who is now at Scottsbluff High School.
“My first experience with Math Day was as a timer in 2000 during my freshman year as an undergrad. I thought it was exciting to see the energy and excitement students brought with them. Just four years later, my Westside students won the 2004 Class A Math Bowl competition,” said Aaberg, who since 2011 has brought 45 to 50 students from Scottsbluff. “Driving 400 miles is a chore, but UNL Math Day is worth the trip year after year.”
Math Day consists of both individual and team competitions. All students participate in a multiple-choice, preliminary exam called PROBE I (Problems Requiring Original and Brilliant Effort). Now the top 40 students then move on to take the famous essay exam PROBE II. The PROBE top 10 Nebraska high school students (sum of PROBE I and II) are awarded a total of $34,000 in four-year scholarships to UNL. One hundred teams also compete in the Math Bowl, a double-elimination tournament pitting three-member teams against one another.
“I think the problems in PROBE I are great problems that seem very accessible to the students but yet require them to think beyond the obvious,” said Lincoln East Math Day coach Leona Penner, who for 15 years has brought around 50 students to compete.
Volunteers are still needed for this year. Alumni interested in coming to help should contact firstname.lastname@example.org.