March 01, 2012

Inaugural ‘Little Egypt Math Week’ starts March 5

by Tim Crosby

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- Math week approaches at Southern Illinois University Carbondale.

Monday, March 5, marks the beginning of the first Little Egypt Math Week, five days of events and competitions highlighting mathematics and the role it plays in everyday life.

“Math is becoming a more and more important aspect of our Information Age, and Little Egypt Math Week will help put the focus on this importance in society,” said Greg Budzban, interim chair of the Department of Mathematics in the College of Science.

The weeklong event is an amplification of the long-standing annual Mathematics Field Day Competition, which ran for more than 50 years.  Those events, which feature a math competition in which area high school students compete for scholarships, will remain as part of the expanded event.

The week kicks off with the inaugural Langenhop Lecture featuring Peter Sarnak, a professor at Princeton University.  Sarnak’s lecture, “Number Theory and the Circle Packings of Apollonius,” begins at 7:30 p.m. Monday in Morris Library Auditorium.

Sarnak, a permanent member of the Institute of Advanced Studies, a member of the National Academy of Science and a Fellow of the Royal Society and the Department of Mathematics, is known for his ability to make advanced mathematics relative and accessible, illuminating deep connections between it and other disciplines in science and the humanities, Budzban said.

Carl E. Langenhop, a longtime professor of mathematics and now professor emeritus at SIU Carbondale, provided the funding for the lecture and future lectures in the series.

Next up is the annual Mathematics Field Day Competition.  It will begin at 10 a.m. Tuesday, March 6, and run until noon at the SIU Arena. Students from about 50 high schools in Illinois, Missouri, Kentucky and Tennessee will compete on this math test, which is designed, presented and scored by SIU Carbondale mathematics faculty. Participants will have lunch from 12:15 to 1:30 p.m. in the Old National Bank Saluki Lounge at the arena.

The faculty will present awards to the top scorers on the test at 2 p.m. at the arena, as well.  Prizes include a partial tuition waiver academic scholarship to the highest-scoring junior who plans to major in a science field at SIU Carbondale. The College of Science is sponsoring the scholarship, which is valued at up to $4,000 during a four-year period.

Other top scorers will bring home trophies and ribbons as awarded to teams in three divisions based their high school’s enrollment.  Individual high scorers will win certificates in each division, as well.

As part of that day’s activities, the University also will hold a program for math teachers. That event is set for 10:30 a.m. at the arena and features speaker Ron Nagrodski, a lecturer in the Department of Mathematics.

For more information about Tuesday’s competition, contact Kathy Pericak-Spector, event chair, at 618/453-6569 or

Concluding the week is another new feature of the expanded activities: the Math Challenge Problem Contest. The contest will invite Southern Illinois high school math classes located south of Interstate 64 to solve a math problem that the Department of Mathematics posts on its Facebook page at 4 p.m. Wednesday, March. 7. 

“The class that first uploads a video of them correctly solving the problem will receive a $300 gift card to be used for pizza parties, gifts or other things for the rest of the school year,” Budzban said.

Budzban said he hopes to expand on the contest’s concept each year to generate more interest in math and more awareness of the University’s leading position in that discipline.  An annual problem-solving contest that showcases creative ways of illustrating its principles could be a boon for the University.

“It’s all about going viral with this kind of thing,” he said. “I would like to see it become something the University is known for.”