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Strength in Numbers

MPE 2013 Meets the SIAM/Moody’s Math Modeling Contest

By Gail Corbett

As Mathematics of Planet Earth 2013 approaches the halfway mark, its logo has adorned a remarkable array of events and activities all over the world, at all levels—from programs at major mathematics institutes to public lecture series to activities for young students.  An overarching goal of all this, along with an informed and active public, is to ensure that the activities set in motion continue well beyond 2013.

As an MPE 2013-supporting society, SIAM has highlighted the theme in a number of events. A recent example is the choice of an environmental theme—recycling—for the problem of this year’s Moody’s Mega Math Challenge, a high school modeling contest that SIAM has organized for the Moody’s Foundation for the last eight years. The 2013 problem challenged participating teams to create a model that predicts the amount of plastic waste that will be deposited in U.S. landfills in 10 years; to use this model in analyses of programs for recycling plastics and other forms of waste for three U.S. cities with different demographics; and to recommend (in the form of a report addressed to the EPA) ways in which the programs can be scaled up to the national level.

On the weekend of March 2–3, 1281 teams from 29 states in the eastern U.S. settled in for the 14 hours they were given to produce their solutions. On Friday, April 5, 12 of the 151 judges who participated in this year’s contest traveled to SIAM headquarters for the semi-final round of judging, in which six finalists would be chosen to present their results in New York City. A few of those judges are pictured here, including Ben Galluzzo of Shippensburg University, who has served as both problem writer and judge in the last few contests; as the MAA’s representative to the public awareness arm of MPE 2013, he was instrumental in connecting the Moody’s competition to MPE 2013.

In a short conversation with SIAM News, Galluzzo pointed out that writing a problem with a timely theme that will challenge high school students, but not inordinately, and that is amenable to solution within the 14-hour contest period, is itself a substantial challenge. (One of the main ways in which the SIAM community can help with future contests is in submitting and then helping to edit problems into a final workable form.)

Galluzzo, whose research is in subsurface fluid flow, has long been persuaded of the value of undergraduate research and, in particular, of the involvement of undergraduates in mathematical modeling. At Shippensburg, he teaches mathematical modeling, in large part to future mathematics teachers, and as a graduate student he created a (still ongoing) 24-hour regional modeling competition for college students. It was through the latter that he met Ben Fusaro, of MCM and, more recently, Moody’s competition fame. For both Fusaro and Galluzzo, several important threads were tied up when the SIAM/Moody’s contest and MPE 2013 joined forces. 

An awareness of mathematical modeling among people of all ages—“How many high school students even know what modeling is?” Galluzzo wonders—is one characteristic of the informed and proactive public that is needed to halt and begin to turn back the destruction of the planet. Accordingly, both he and Fusaro have thrown themselves into activities designed to reach the largest possible numbers of people—by teaching teachers, introducing students to modeling, running competitions, with the emphasis on environmental issues. For his part, Galluzzo is thinking of directing the efforts to younger and younger students. “If high school students can be reached,” he muses, “what about middle school, and then . . . ?"

Information about the Moody’s Mega Math Challenge can be found at

Gail Corbett is the managing editor of SIAM News.

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