Perhaps you had a free study block in the Big Room on a recent Monday. You’re making your way to the third floor to use one of the side classrooms, only to find a few others working away—on a particularly tight deadline.

Members of the Math Club participated in the Math Modeling Challenge, a fourteen-hour mathematics competition on March 1, 2021. The challenge encourages Fifth and Sixth Formers to work together to tackle real-world problems with limited time and resources. The challenge is run by the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics (SIAM), headquartered in University City, Philadelphia, and sponsored by MathWorks, a private company known for mathematical computing software.

Mathematics teacher Mr. Nathan Bridge encouraged these Math Club members to sign up and prepare. “Every time of the year, they [SIAM] write a prompt, and usually, the prompt pertains to challenges that society is facing in the United States, or really around the world,” Mr. Bridge said.

Competitors could use mathematical skills for problem-solving and the internet for research purposes. The teams were then tasked with compiling their research, thought processes, and models into a 20-page paper submitted between 6 a.m. and 8 p.m. on the same day.

For this year’s challenge, students modeled the state of internet access (or the lack thereof) in certain parts of the country. “The paper takes note on why this is pertinent, how it’s hurting people, and how some people are having inequitable access to some resources,” Mr. Bridge said. “Most recent examples include, of course, the vaccine rollout, because the way that you register for the vaccine shot is all online now.”

For Fifth Former Bram Schork, this required some more intensive outside-the-box methods. “This year was definitely more programming intensive,” Schork said, “but it also definitely required a good amount of math.”

Well-versed in programming, Schork had the opportunity to create a different approach towards a potential solution. “I built a program that was able to tell you where you should place cell towers in a region in order to provide optimal cell coverage,” Schork said.

Considering the challenge’s level of rigor, one would be forgiven for thinking that it takes a substantial knowledge of math, but participants say otherwise.

“For the most part, a lot of it is less of actually using algebra or calculus, and more of just having a higher understanding of how those factor into building a model,” Fifth Former Elijah Lee said.

His teammate, Sixth Former Gary Gao, concurred. “It’s not exactly like college-level stuff, but you need to know some things that are outside of the standard math courses,” Gao said.

For such a competition to involve such intense time pressure and complex problem-solving skills may intimidate the average student, but the Math Modeling Challenge is meant to encourage new problem-solving approaches.

“You don’t need a very high level of mathematics in order to do this,” Mr. Bridge said. “In fact, for the students who report back after they take it, the most important thing is that you know how to make sense of a problem or issue.”

For Schork, the challenge emphasizes solving problems that real people face across the country. “I think that just by learning how to problem-solve solutions like this, people will actually see students when entering the workforce,” Schork said.

“It’s applied mathematics,” Lee said. “You are applying mathematics to real-world situations, and I think that this is a good opportunity to get a good introduction to what that looks like.”

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