A Montana State University team took home a first-place win in a regional contest that challenged competitors to develop a mathematical model to solve a real-world problem in just 24 hours.
Sarah Juedeman, Kelsey Philipsek and Miguel Strunk took top honors in the essay portion of the Montana Mathematical Modeling Challenge, held Oct. 24-25 at Carroll College in Helena. Fifteen teams from five colleges participated in the competition, which is in its second year.
The two-part competition consisted of an essay portion judged by math instructors and a presentation portion judged by peer competitors. Teams had a choice of solving one of two problems – finding housing for 160,000-plus Syrian and other refugees displaced by conflict and eventual long-term housing for a million refugees, or determining the environmental impacts of the large-scale cultivation of a seaweed that tastes like bacon.
Despite Strunk’s background as a bioengineering student that would have given them an advantage on the seaweed challenge, the team opted to tackle the refugee crisis because of its humanitarian component, Strunk said.
“We decided the refugee challenge was something that could be impactful,” he said.
Before beginning the essay, the team spent nearly five hours researching the refugee crisis, each taking a different approach.
Philipsek, a fourth-year student double majoring in civil engineering and applied mathematics, focused on the numbers.
“I did the data collection and input, making a spreadsheet that looked at gross domestic product, population density, debt, the backgrounds of the EU countries and other variables,” she said.
Strunk researched the current EU model being used to allocate the refugees.
“Some countries argued they couldn’t accommodate that many people,” he said. “We took those complaints into consideration. We looked at where we thought they went wrong and looked at what we could do to improve it, then modified the model.”
Juedeman, a senior majoring in electrical engineering, looked into the politics surrounding the EU allocation, keeping in mind there were actual people behind the numbers.
“We considered the personal aspect of things,” she said. “We really looked at the human component and the discrimination effect.”
Realizing the scope of the issue, the team decided to create two models: one to solve the short-term problem of placing the refugees and another to address the long-term issue of integration. With a two-page limit to describe both models, they worked through the night to combine their data, different life experiences, engineering disciplines and writing styles into one cohesive paper.
When their essay was finished, they had just a couple of hours left in the competition to put together their oral presentation, which highlighted the plight of the refugees with the help of photos from “Humans of New York,” a blog featuring a collection of street interviews by photographer Brandon Stanton.
All three future engineers agree the experience left them with something to think about as they finish up their degrees and prepare to begin their professional lives.
“It’s a much bigger problem than I thought,” Strunk said. “It’s hard to picture a million people, and that’s not even half the people who are leaving their homes and going through a perilous journey just to try to survive.”
Juedeman said she was left with a desire to use what she has learned at MSU to better the lives of others.
“It's so easy to focus on the pressures of our own individual lives, and the scope of the EU refugee crisis was a good reminder of the immense tragedy people are facing right now and the changes that need to be made to make their lives better,” she said. “As mathematicians, or scientists, or engineers, we have the power to affect policy, to help politicians make the right choices.”
Philipsek echoed Juedeman, adding that the win was made possible by the stellar education they received from the MSU math faculty.
“We’re all intelligent people, but we wouldn’t have been able to do this without the wonderful professors in the math department,” she said. “The math faculty here are brilliant. We are so lucky to have professors who truly want us to succeed. It made me really proud to turn around and show them what they have done for us.”
Denise Hoepfner, (406) 994-4542 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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