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SMC excels in math competition

Tabitha Ricketts | Wednesday, April 24, 2013

 

Math students from Saint Mary’s College competed in the 2013 international competition known as the Mathematical Contest in Modeling (MCM) hosted by the Consortium for Mathematics and its Applications (COMAP). 

In a competition of nearly seven thousand teams, seniors Samantha Brady and Olivia McIntee placed in the top 15th percentile and earned a position among the Meritorious Winners. The two students were one of three teams sent by Saint Mary’s, marking the first time in the College’s history where more than two teams competed. 

Steven Broad, assistant professor of mathematics, coached the teams at Saint Mary’s. He said the COMAP competition challenges students over the course of a weekend with problems involving mathematical models of real-world phenomenon.

“Every year [the teams are given] two problems, the sort of problems experts might work on for years,” Broad said. “The goal of the weekend is to try to make some significant step toward solving the problem at a very high level.”

The teams choose one problem and spend four days compiling a report of over 20 pages on the mathematical model they devised, Broad said. At the end of the competition, the teams submit their work to be judged.

“The thing that’s really great about it is [that] it’s all their [own] work, ” Broad said, “Once the competition starts, I’m completely out of the picture. I can get them prepped and ready to go, but once the competition starts, I’m not involved at all.”

The other two Saint Mary’s teams involved in the competition received recognition as Successful Participants, a highly gratifying accomplishment for work at this level, Broad said.

“Being successful at something as extraordinarily difficult as this shows that they spent that weekend doing good work, and walked away from it without anything to complain about,” he said. “They did well.”

Preparation for the competition involves participating in a one credit “boot camp” class that meets in the spring semester before the competition in February, Broad said. The class focuses on different types of mathematical modeling and various mathematical strategies for approaching these models.

This year, for the first time, the class was open to students who did not compete in COMAP. Broad said he hopes to expand the class to satisfy requirements within the math major and attract more students to take the class as well as to participate in the competition.

 “There isn’t any reason why it has to be [just math majors],” he said. “In fact there are a lot of cases where it might be valuable to have people who major in the sciences.”

McIntee is a dual-degree engineering student, studying math at Saint Mary’s and mechanical engineering at Notre Dame. Broad said he thinks her engineering major at Notre Dame helped considerably in the competition. 

“Sometimes having ideas about things that aren’t just math can be really helpful,” he said. “Having a range of different kinds of students could be very beneficial, but they need to have a very strong background in math.”

One of the problems from this year demonstrates the varied nature of the models, he said. It involved determining the optimal shape of a brownie pan for even heat distribution, which is not a math-specific model.

Broad said he was nervous going into this year’s competition because the teams had so little time to prepare, with the competition falling barely three weeks into the spring semester. 

“It’s really cool to watch students take their own knowledge and do something they didn’t think they could do with it,” Broad said.

Contact Tabitha Ricketts at tricke01@saintmarys.edu