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Members of the Advanced Math Problem Solving class at Central Academy with teachers Michael Marcketti and Brian Reece. Senior Tanner Drabek (pictured working with Nyah Davis in the top photo) was the lead author of a puzzle the class created for The Riddler column on ESPN’s FiveThirtyEight data journalism site.

What do Jim Carrey, Frank Gorshin and DMPS alum Oliver Roeder have in common?

All three are aka The Riddler, Gorshin and Carrey having played that role as a villainous rival of Batman, Roeder currently editing a puzzling column by that name, minus nefarious motives, for the popular data journalism website FiveThirtyEight, based in New York City.

FiveThiryEight, or 538, takes its name from the number of electors in the Electoral College. It began in 2008 as a political polling blog created by analyst extraordinaire, Nate Silver. In 2010, the blog became a licensed feature of the New York Times online. In 2013, ESPN acquired it. Since then, FiveThirtyEight has covered a broad spectrum of subjects including politics, sports, science, economics, and popular culture.

Roeder graduated from Roosevelt in 2003, and attended Greenwood, Callanan and Central Academy. (In the interest of full disclosure his father is Phil Roeder, Director of Communications at DMPS.)

“I went to college at the University of Chicago,” he said by email from New York. Then, while 538 was brewing, “I did a Ph.D. in economics at the University of Texas … and a postdoc at NYU Law’s Brennan Center where I did econometric research into incarceration and crime. I got my start at FiveThirtyEight after I pitched them a piece about the research I was doing there. They weren’t interested in that at the time, but the editor who fielded my pitch noticed on Facebook that I played competitive Scrabble. My first piece for them was a quantitative profile of the world’s best Scrabble player. I was hired as a staff writer a few weeks later.”

His regular gig at FiveThirtyEight includes writing on eclectic topics that range from competitive subcultures (chess, Scrabble, crosswords) to the law (voting rights, criminal justice, the Supreme Court) to the world of art, in addition to collecting and editing weekly brainteasers that incorporate “things we hold dear around here: math, logic and probability,” according to the column’s preface.

Regular followers of The Riddler, which is slated for publication in book form next year as a collection of the column’s ‘greatest hits,’ include math classes at Central Academy. Roeder’s puzzles make for great calisthenics.

In fact, the Advanced Mathematics Problem Solving class at Central Academy created one of the puzzles that Roeder features in The Riddler’s most recent installment, which publishes each Friday morning. Its lead author is senior math whiz Tanner Drabek, and it is one of four problems submitted from schools around the country to commemorate The Riddler’s 100th column. Teachers Mike Marcketti and Brian Reece worked with the class in honing a well-crafted problem for 538’s readers to solve.

“The math department at Central Academy follows the career paths and accomplishments of our graduates with interest,” said Marcketti. “We were enthused when former student Oliver Roeder began editing The Riddler column for the FiveThirtyEight website that many of us follow … and we began incorporating it at appropriate spots in some classes.

“Recently … Oliver tweeted that he was looking for high school classes interested in creating a Riddler puzzle for the 100th edition of the column. The Advanced Math Problem Solving students all gave it a try and they funneled it down to Tanner’s problem that Oliver accepted.”

Roeder has gone a long way since his first classes at Central Academy as a 7th grader. But he hasn’t forgotten where it all began.

“(The puzzles) open the door to a broader world,” he said. “If a student tries to crack a puzzle that needs a little bit of calculus, say, that student might be inspired to learn more. Central Academy provided this dynamic, too. I have distinct memories of learning geometry from Mr. (Michael) Link [he’s still teaching there] by designing and building a miniature golf hole. I remember learning computer networking and code by playing video games at lunch in the computer lab. These were fun, to be sure, but opened whole worlds of ‘serious’ learning. I am very lucky to have gone to school in Des Moines and at Central.”

So, if a student leaves DMPS traveling at high speed and a train leaves a station somewhere in the world traveling at an equally high speed on a course that will collide with that student at some point in the future – who is that student, where is that train coming from, and when will the two collide? It could be you, it could be anywhere, and it could be sooner than you ever thought possible.


Photos of the Advanced Math Problem Solving Class at Central Academy

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