August 16, 2007
"An applied Putnam."
That was the phrase Founding Director Ben Fusaro used when discussing his idea for a mathematical competition with a colleague back in 1983, referring to the William Lowell Putnam Mathematical Competition. Two years later, the Consortium for Mathematics and Its Applications (COMAP) started the Mathematical Contest in Modeling (MCM), a competition designed to test students' abilities to solve realistic problems and work in a team setting.
This year, the MCM drew 949 teams from all over the world to compete in the contest's 22nd edition, which gave teams of up to three high school or undergraduate students five days to research, model, and submit answers to one of two practical math problems.
Of these entries, only 14 were judged to be "outstanding," and two of them were deemed this year's MAA prize recipients.
The team of Sam Burden, Aaron Dilley, and Lukas Svec from the University of Washington, Seattle was given the MAA award for their work on problem A, which dealt with gerrymandering and involved developing a fair way to define a state's voting districts. The team's paper was titled "Applying Voronoi Diagrams to the Redistricting Problem."
The group of Bach Ha, Daniel Matheny, and Spencer Tipping from Truman State University won for their work on problem B, which focused on determining efficient ways for airlines to board passengers. Their paper was titled "Modeling Airline Boarding Procedures."
Both groups presented their solutions during a session at MathFest 2007 in San Jose and were awarded plaques and certificates for their work. The solutions will also be published in The UMAP Journal.
Fusaro attributes the competition's popularity in part to the challenge of working on practical problems. "Students generally like a challenge and probably are attracted by the opportunity, for perhaps the first time in their mathematical lives, to work as a team on a realistic applied problem," he says.
He also notes that, unlike the Putnam Competition, the MCM deals with these practical problems in much more of a real-world environment.
"Most problems that come up in business, government, or industry are solved by teams, they are likely to take many hours, and no one would be restricted to only using pencil and paper," Fusaro says. "Moreover, the answer must be presented to a boss who wants an understandable response in English."
The most important aspect of the MCM is the impact it has on its participants and, as Fusaro puts it, "the confidence that this experience engenders."—R. Miller