GCSU’s Math Jeopardy team dominates their way to first place
Story and photos developed by University Communications.
J eopardy usually means a crisis or threat. That’s how some people feel about math too.
But a group of Georgia College & State University (GCSU) students turned jeopardy into victory last week—snatching the Math Jeopardy championship title at the Mathematical Association of America (MAA) Southeastern conference at Coastal Carolina University in Conway, South Carolina.
"I am so proud of our team for winning the Math Jeopardy tournament,” said Dr. Rachel Epstein, associate professor of math and Math Club co-advisor. Retired Math Professor Dr. Hong Yue also helped the team prepare.
Math Jeopardy is part of the MAA conference each year. The three-day venture includes research presentations, a math scavenger hunt, math recreational games and fun talks about general math subjects like “Pascal’s triangle” or the “Fibonacci Sequence.”
The main show, however, is Math Jeopardy—modeled after the popular TV game show, Jeopardy, complete with buzzers to punch, categories to choose and answering in the form of a question.
A generous donation by alum Harlan Archer, ’89, ’09, of Sandersville enables Georgia College to send students to Math Jeopardy and other math conferences. Georgia College students have participated for many years—only missing competitions that were canceled during the COVID-19 pandemic.
They won second place in 2022, 2017 and 2011. They took third place in 2019.
This was the first time Georgia College won the top prize—a trophy and medals for each participant. Team members from the GCSU Math Club include: Jacob Carter, senior math major from McDonough; Monica Lichtenwalner, senior math major from Cumming; Caroline Hegwood, junior math major from Marietta; and Anna Marti, first-year math major from Loganville.
They competed against 15 schools from Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, North Carolina and South Carolina. In the final championship round, Georgia College competed against Georgia State University, Coastal Carolina University and Western Carolina University.
Epstein knew she had a strong team this year. They work together well, explaining mathematical concepts to each other.
“There have been times when one person really dominates the game and that can be frustrating,” she said, “But most of the time it’s not like that, and I like that everybody on our team contributes.”
Epstein doesn’t like the idea of math as a competition. She prefers to give students all the time they need to answer a question—not 2 minutes. She doesn’t use buzzers or time constraints at practice. Nor does she require students to practice by answering in question form.
When preparing, the team reviews screenshots of old Math Jeopardy questions, working them out together. They also look up interesting facts about things, like prime factors, and new techniques, like doing square roots by hand.
The method must work.
In the first of two rounds, Georgia College was—mathematically speaking—guaranteed to win the round with a score much higher than other teams. They were the only team to get the Final Jeopardy question before entering the finals, bringing their round-one score to 7,300.
In that first round, the Georgia College team was up against last year’s winner, Berry College.
“Our biggest fear and uncertainty was how the difficulty of this year's questions would compare to previous year's questions,” said Anna Marti, who’s been called one of the university’s strongest first-year math students by Math Chair Robert Blumenthal.
“We were also watching out for Berry College's team since they beat us last year, and they were in our preliminary round. Even though we were anxious competing against Berry, we managed to rack up enough points that we secured the win before Final Jeopardy, which was really exciting for us.”
Her teammate Monica Lichtenwalner would like to teach college math someday. Like most contestants, she considers math to be fun. Yet, even she was a little nervous going into the competition.
Her biggest fear was time constraints.
“At school, math is interesting and there there’s no time pressure or stuff like that. It’s a little different, when there’s a time constraint. I’m not good at being rushed,” Lichtenwalner said.
This was Caroline Hegwood’s second Math Jeopardy competition. Math just “clicks” for her; it’s always been something she enjoys. After graduation, she’d like to teach high school math or work as an actuary.
Even for smart math whizzes, however, Math Jeopardy can be a “bit stressful.” But Hegwood said she kept cool by reminding herself she could do it.
“We have a lot of really smart people on our team,” Hegwood said. “The hardest part would have to be the time constraints.”
One year, there was a category on Middle Earth with questions based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s popular “Lord of the Rings” series.
In the end, the winning stroke is teamwork.
“We had each other's backs,” Marti said. “We learned each other's strengths and weaknesses in different subject areas and put our trust in each other. We agreed to not get frustrated at a fellow teammate, if they answered incorrectly, and to keep the experience fun no matter what.”