Montana State University

Math more than black and white for teams in international competition

February 1, 2016 -- By Tracy Ellig, MSU News Service

Fifteen Montana State University undergraduates competed in a grueling 96-hour international math competition the last weekend of January. Back row, from left: Connor Beck, Kendra Hergett, Sarah McKnight, Kelsey Phillipsek, Adam Holeman, Mark Poston, Connor Cash. Front row, from left: Jerad Hoy, Christopher Santoso, Julia Platt, Christina Hayes, Rebecca Tseng, Shengnan Zhou, Garrett Oren. MSU photo by Tracy Ellig.

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Five teams of Montana State University students spent the last weekend in January competing in a grueling, 96-hour international mathematics competition that tested the limits of their knowledge, teamwork, research, communication skills and endurance.

For more than 30 years, the Consortium for Mathematics and its Applications, COMAP, a non-profit based in Bedford, Mass., has hosted an international mathematical modeling competition. The contest lets teams select one of six problems and use any resources they can find on the Internet or in libraries for assistance. In fact, some problems list recommended websites.  

Each problem is of such complexity that no ready-made answer exists on the Internet. Solutions can require up to a 20-page response. Teams were to come up with models that would allow for predictions or other actions.  

The team “Weapons of Math Destruction” chose to wrestle with an information network problem looking at how information was distributed in five time periods from 1870 to 2010. The team had to develop a model that showed the speed with which information was spread based on the information’s value and then predict the capacities and relationships of information networks in 2050.

Sound hard? That’s not even a complete description.

“These are all real-world problems that are being pondered by governments, industry and researchers,” said Christina Hayes, the group’s faculty adviser in the Department of Mathematical Sciences. “These are really hard problems and that is what the students find so exciting. This is the application of all the skills they’ve been learning in the classroom.”

While the desire to win wasn’t irrelevant to the teams, the intellectual challenge and a sincere love and curiosity of math were stronger drivers.   

“People think math is black and white, but it’s not like that. It’s very creative and each person brings something different to the task. That’s one of the things that is so cool about this competition,” said Julia Platt, a senior in statistics from Helena and a member of Weapons of Math Destruction.

“Math is one of the most beautiful of languages and we are using math to describe humanity,” said teammate Kelsey Philipsek, a senior in civil engineering and applied math from Apple Valley, Minn. “We’re using this language – math – to describe human behavior.”

Other problems challenged students to figure out how to eliminate the hundreds of thousands of bits of space debris circling the earth and threating human space flight and satellites; and determining the best way to invest $100 million per year for five years to improve education.

The contest started at 6 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 28, and concluded at 6 p.m. Monday, Feb. 1. On Friday night, while many students were blowing off steam, all five teams were hard at work in the mathematics wing of Wilson Hall on MSU’s campus. Most of the teams were planning on eating, sleeping – a little – and working their problems until the finish line.

“Some of these students worked extra hard during the week to complete their homework so they could devote their complete attention to these problems,” Hayes said. “In addition to having a lot of fun, this kind of intense competition is looked on very favorably by graduate programs and employers.”

Contest results are judged by mathematicians, math educators and others in fields directly related to mathematics and will be available on or before April 29. The students who participated in the competition will also present their solutions later this month in talks hosted by the MSU Department of Mathematical Sciences.

Donated gifts from alumni and friends to the MSU Alumni Foundation at year-end and from phonathon fundraising efforts covered the student team registration fees through the Mathematics Development Fund.

Team name followed by their chosen problem:

Chris’s Crew: Space Junk problem
Christopher Santoso, sophomore in electrical engineering from Vernon Hills, Ill.; Rebecca Tseng, a freshman in biochemistry from Bozeman; Shengnan Zhou, a junior in mathematics from Hangzhou, China.

Math Tub: Hot Bath problem
Kendra Hergett, a freshman in bioengineering from Florence, Mont.; Connor Beck, a freshman in bioengineering from Olympia, Wash.

Parsimonious Pandas: Goodgrant problem
Sarah McKnight, a sophomore in statistics from San Diego, Calif; Jerad Hoy, a junior in statistics from Helena.

Weapons of Math Destruction: Information Networking problem
Kelsey Philipsek, a senior in civil engineering and applied math from Apple Valley, Minn.; Julia Platt, a senior in statistics from Helena; Adam Holeman, a junior in math from Dalles, Ore.

Off Constantly: Goodgrant problem
Mark Poston, a freshman in mathematics from Rapid City, S.D.; Connor Cash, a freshman in mathematics from Cody, Wyo.; Garrett Oren, a sophomore in economics and mathematics from Lino Lakes, Minn. 

Contact: Christina Hayes, Director of Undergraduate Program Activities, MSU Department of Mathematical Sciences, (406) 994-5345 or Christina.hayes@montana.edu