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Undergraduates win top honor at international math contest

Team’s winning model would improve access to water, predicting how policy changes will affect water scarcity

Julia Gross ’18, Clayton Sanford ’18 and Geoffrey Kocks ’18 notched top performances in the Interdisciplinary Contest for Modeling, a mathematical competition that involved over 5,000 teams from across the world and took place earlier this semester. Results were announced April 11.

The team received an outstanding winner designation, the highest in the contest, for its work on improving access to clean water worldwide, said Veronica Ciocanel GS, who helped to advise several teams of undergraduates who participated in the competition.

“We didn’t expect to do well,” Sanford said. Rather, he and his teammates had hoped to spend a weekend researching a topic that interested them and gain new skills in writing and researching a report under time constraints.

While Sanford said that the model his team used to predict water scarcity was relatively simple, the underlying research that supported the model was more difficult to gather.

“You could probably present this math to a middle school classroom, if they know algebra,” Gross said of the project. A biology concentrator, she valued her team’s use of clean formulas to construct the model.

The team not only focused on math, but also researched how certain policy changes would affect water scarcity. “Agriculture had one of the biggest effects,” Sanford added.

Three other teams of undergraduates gained honorable mentions in a similar mathematics contest, the Mathematical Contest for Modeling, which is held alongside the ICM and follows the same rules. While the ICM poses interdisciplinary questions to contestants, the MCM poses more strictly mathematical questions.

Martin Carlsen ’16, Julia Romanski ’16 and Sorin Vatasoiu ’17 modeled how a philanthropic foundation interested in improving undergraduate education could distribute funds. They used real, large datasets from educational institutions. Their team ranked in the top 45 percent of scorers.

Samuel Angelo Crisanto ’16, Ekaterina Kryuchkova ’17 and Zachary Loery ’17 also secured an honorable mention for their work on a strategy to maintain the temperature in a hot bathtub that would optimize the overall use of water. Yimou Li ’17, Zitao Quan ’17 and Zheng Shi ’18, who worked on the same prompt, received an honorable mention as well.

The competitions took place over the course of four days. During that time, students downloaded the prompts online, strategized how they would solve the problem and then worked to implement their solution.

“It’s really hard to plan out what to do over four days,” said Marshall Jiang GS, who also helped to advise the undergraduates in preparation for the competition.

To help the contestants become more effective in allocating their time during the actual competition, Ciocanel and Jiang created their own local competition in November, a smaller-scale version of the international competition that took place over two days, rather than four.

“It was a little easier for people to commit to a local competition that they could do over a weekend,” Ciocanel said. After engaging in the shorter competition, the students were less reluctant to commit to the lengthier contest, which took place in February.

“There were teams that went to the ICM in the past, but it was not in an organized manner,” Ciocanel said. This year, with the help of the local contest, the teams performed better than they had in previous years.

The team that earned an outstanding winner designation will publish the results of its project in an undergraduate publication compiled by the ICM, Sanford said.

Gross encouraged even those with little math experience to gain hands-on experience in the field. “The way math forces us to make quantitative sense of the world is a useful tool for anyone regardless of their formal background in math,” she said.



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