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Integration Bee (guest post by Mike W. ‘19) by Lydia K. '14, MEng '16

I had a tagline planned out, but I axed it for being too derivative.

This blog post is by Mike W. ‘19, epic speed integrator and Random Hall freshman physicist. If you enjoy integrating you can try out some problems at the end of this post, and if you enjoy Mike’s writing you should read his most recent fiction project.

Calculus has always been my favorite type of math. Maybe it’s the physicist in me. So when I heard that MIT had an annual Integration Bee, I got excited.

I checked my calendar. The Bee was between the first and second semester. I might have trouble finding time, given my busy schedule of watching superhero cartoons, listening to songs about Alexander Hamilton on YouTube, and flipping through the physics textbooks I would use next semester (my personal record is forty pages flipped in a minute).

I prepared. I found some integrals online. I did them. I reviewed all the techniques. I discovered I never really learned partial fractions. Turns out I wasn’t missing much, partial fractions is a total drag.

Anyways, I waltzed in for the written portion, confident as you please. I tend to solve problems quickly, so the extreme time-pressure probably helped me. I made the cut, for the live round. Turns out my roommate did too.

I did some more integrals leading up to the contest. My Hamilton-listening time took a serious hit. Partial fractions continued to be lame. U-subs all the way.

I showed up at the event. I recognized a few of the people there. Mostly my fellow physics majors. Because math people can’t do integrals.

At this point, I ask myself a very fundamental question: what is an integration bee?

Yeah, I know. It’s a little embarrassing that I had gotten that far, done all the preparation, but I didn’t know the rules. But it turned out none of the other competitors were quite sure either.

But the people running the event seemed to know (or else they were very good at bluffing). They had us go up in groups of five. We had to do integrals, with a time limit. If you got one wrong, you got a strike. Four strikes and you’re out. Things would continue until there were eight people left. Then, there would be a single elimination round.

I scraped by with three strikes. So did my roommate. That meant we were seeded against the second and third best performers in the first round, respectively. We both managed to pull off victories. Which meant we were up against each other for a shot at the finals.

My roommate steamrolled me. He got every problem right, I got every problem wrong. Then, he went on to win the contest. I’m not jealous. Not at all.

I think this is sort of emblematic of MIT. No matter how hard you practice for something, no matter how much you cut into your Hamilton time, there is always a chance your roommate will beat you. Because this is MIT, so the odds are pretty good that your roommate is smart. And shares your taste in integrals.

(Lydia again—) If you’ve got some integration in your toolbox, you can try the tournament out for yourself. Here are the qualifying rounds from 2014 and 2013, respectively, embedded from the 2014 web site.

Even better: last year’s Integration Bee was videotaped, so you can watch and follow along.

If you want even more integration, you can also read about the Integration Bee in Yan’s blog post from today, 2009, and this Quora post, which includes insights from other Grand Integrators and almost Grand Integrators.

PS: The beautiful tagline is by Cory, not by me.

PPS: If you’re not into this, don’t worry—you don’t have to be very good at or very excited about integrals to fit in, do well, or have fun at MIT. We have all sorts of hobbies. In fact, you can get through MIT solving integrals very slowly and in private.