When N. James Schoonmaker assumed the duties of chair of the Department of Mathematics (now the Department of Mathematics and Statistics) at the University of Vermont in the fall of 1956, he was eager to stimulate an interest in secondary level mathematics throughout the state and to increase contacts between college and high school teachers of the subject. Among his initiatives was a proposal for the establishment of a Prize Examination in Mathematics. The examination would be prepared by members of the mathematics faculty at the University of Vermont and given to high school students throughout the state.
The first Vermont Prize Examination in Mathematics was given on Saturday, March 29, 1958 at participating high schools in the state. Nearly 600 students representing 71 schools entered the first competition, which consisted of 44 problems to be solved in a two hour time period. The answer sheets were returned to the contest committee and scored, and the two statewide and four regional winners were honored in ceremonies at UVM and in Montpelier later that spring.
Since the initial competition in 1958, the Prize Examination has been conducted on an annual basis and has become an institution in the state of Vermont. It is believed to be the longest continuously running statewide high school level mathematics competition of its kind in the United States.
While the physical appearance of the examination has evolved over the years, the format has remained essentially the same since its inception. Students are given an examination with problems of varying degrees of difficulty, and are asked to solve as many of them as they can in the allotted time. At one time 41 was chosen for the number of questions on the examination because it is a prime number, and this was eventually standardized because it was easier to have the same number of questions each year given the difficulty of typesetting in the early days of the contest. Those early typesetting difficulties are long behind us, but the number of questions remains set at 41 by tradition. Question topics include the traditional subjects of algebra, geometry and trigonometry, as well as probability, combinatorics and problems involving reasoning skills. All problems can be solved without using calculus.
Math Day is held on the campus of the University of Vermont each May to honor the top scorers (eight statewide winners and eight regional winners). The students’ parents and teachers are also invited to attend. The Math Day program includes a mathematics talk, a luncheon, and the presentation of awards.
In 2020, the competition was held in mid-March, just prior to the schools shutting down due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The winners were honored at a Virtual Math Day held online via Teams. Lunch was not served, alas. With the pandemic continuing, 2021 saw a mostly in-person competition (though a few schools proctored some of their students remotely) and another online Virtual Math Day. We were delighted to welcome contest winners back to the UVM campus for an in-person Math Day in May 2022.