SIAM News Blog

The Moody’s Mega Math Challenge Marks 10th Year

By Rachel Levy

Can you recall the first time you worked with a team on a significant mathematical modeling problem? For me, it was as a senior at Oberlin College, in a project for NASA in an operations research course taught by Professor Bruce Pollack-Johnson (now at Villanova University). I am certain that the experience played a large role in my decision to become an applied mathematician and to join the faculty at Harvey Mudd College, which provides industrial mathematical modeling experiences through its senior capstone clinic projects. SIAM provides students with mathematical modeling experiences through the Moody’s Mega Math (M3) Challenge, which, like COMAP’s Hi-MCM, makes the experience of team-based modeling available to U.S. high school students. M3 is entirely Internet-based, and carries no entry or participation fees.

This year M3 celebrated its 10th anniversary. The competition is organized by Michelle Montgomery’s marketing and outreach team at SIAM, in collaboration with Frances Laserson, president of The Moody’s Foundation. A charitable organization established by Moody’s Corporation, the Foundation sponsors M3 as part of its commitment to supporting education, in particular the study of mathematics, finance, and economics. The competition began in the New York City metropolitan area and has expanded each year; the 2016 competition will be open to students anywhere in the U.S. 

“STEM education is imperative to continue the robust pipeline of talent at Moody’s and elsewhere in our industry,” Laserson comments. “This year, we reached more than 5,000 future applied mathematicians, economists, and computational scientists across the country via this contest, and are proud to have a part in motivating young people to study and pursue careers in these important fields.”  

This year, 1,128 three to five-member teams of juniors and seniors from 45 states participated in M3. They had only 14 hours and 20 pages to develop and communicate their solutions to this year’s question: “Is college worth it?” In their math models, competitors were asked to determine the cost of earning a degree, account for the impact of President Obama’s recent free two-year community college proposal, and contrast potential financial outcomes for those pursuing STEM and non-STEM degrees. Students also quantified factors that would influence a graduate’s overall quality of life after school. The problem was written by SIAM member Eric Eager of the University of Wisconsin, LaCrosse.

Members of the first-place NCSSM team with Moody’s Foundation president Frances Laserson. From left, Guy Blanc, Laserson, Sandeep Silwal, Michael An, Jenny Wang, and Evan Liang.

The M3 challenge gives students practice in cooperation and project management. They are allowed to employ any mathematical techniques they choose and to use data and other information from the web to develop their models. Communication plays a key role, both between team members and in the writing of the report. The students work in a situation familiar to many professionals in BIG (business, industry, and government) mathematics jobs: Given a new problem and a tight deadline, they must develop an insightful and useful solution. 

Several former M3 champions attended the 10th-anniversary event; among them were three of the four members of the inaugural winning team from Staples High School in Westport, Connecticut. Speaking to this year’s finalists, the returning 2006 winners discussed the impact of the competition on their careers, including the benefit of internships at Moody’s, the value of mathematical modeling experience as a talking point in job interviews, and the influence of the competition on their decisions to pursue careers that involve mathematical modeling. Miles Lubin is now in a PhD program in operations research at MIT, Elizabeth Marshman is in a master’s program in biomedical engineering at Stanford, and Andrew Tschircart works in the U.S. Office of the Comptroller of the Currency. The fourth member, Vikas Murali, who was not able to be at the ceremony, is the founder and CEO of ActvContent. 

Mark Zandi, chief economist, Moody’s Analytics, and co-founder of, gave the keynote talk at the event. Zandi spoke candidly to the young competitors, providing inspiration and advice based on his own experiences.

“I am a forecaster and I forecast really good things for you," he said. "All those good things can be even better if you soak up as much education as you possibly can. Take some risks. Do something that makes you feel really uncomfortable. It’s when you take chances that cool and interesting things happen. Surround yourself with people who complement you and stick with them.”

Judging the competition is fun and rewarding. For the past three years I have served as one of the M3 triage judges—applied math professionals, mostly SIAM members, who use an online platform to read, score, and make brief constructive comments on papers. I enjoy seeing what high school students can do with the big, messy, real-world challenge problems, and it is a nice bonus that M3 compensates judges for their time. This year a record 225 PhDs from academia, business, industry, and government participated in the judging; M3 will need even more judges as western states join the competition in 2016. If you would like to join us in the fun, please contact Michelle Montgomery

As SIAM VP for Education, I also had the honor of serving as a finalist judge and giving a short talk at the award ceremony held in the Moody’s building in New York. I was impressed by the high quality of the student presentations, the poise of the team members, and the insightful answers to our tough questions. The subtle communication between teammates as they chose who would answer a particular question gave us a glimpse of the camaraderie within the teams. In my talk I discussed the fallacy of the genius stereotype (that great mathematicians work alone, and without benefit of the ideas of others); I also shared the “Mathematician’s Happy Dance” that my colleagues and I do when one of us makes a breakthrough after a lengthy struggle. Video interviewer Adam Bauser of Bauser Media Group assures me that I was the first person to dance on SIAM livestream, and you can see the winners doing the dance at the end of the 2015 overview video

Excellent well-crafted problems are critical to the success of M3. A good problem is one that has not been solved, that can be approached in many ways using a variety of high school-level mathematics, and that matters—both to the students and to society.  A problem-development team reviews problems, which can be submitted by anyone. M3 pays $150 for a problem that is accepted for the test bank and $1,000 for a problem used for the challenge. To learn more about problem submission, see the “suggest problems” page, or attend an M3 information session the next time you go to the Joint Mathematics Meetings, MathFest, or a SIAM Annual Meeting.

In addition to an archive of past problems and example solutions, the M3 website provides guidance for teachers who would like to work with students on mathematical modeling. Resources, including a free mathematical modeling handbook with connections to the Common Core State Standards in mathematics, science, and language arts, can be downloaded, along with a set of reference cards. Although developed with coaching for M3 in mind, the materials are used by K-12 teachers to get ideas about how to engage their students in authentic mathematical modeling activities.

This year’s six finalists—from Connecticut, Minnesota, North Carolina, and Virginia—took home a combined $60,000 in scholarships (see sidebar). An additional $65,000 in scholarships was distributed among the six semi-finalists and the 53 honorable mention teams. For the 10th anniversary, the M3 organizers produced a series of retrospective videos highlighting past competitors’ successes during their college careers and on into the workplace.   Readers can watch videos, including the finalist team presentations and award ceremony highlights on SIAM's YouTube channel.

The Top Six Teams in 2015

  1. North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics (Team 4902); Durham, North Carolina: $20,000 
  2. North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics (Team 4904); Durham, North Carolina: $15,000 
  3. Elk River High School (Team 5560); Elk River, Minnesota: $10,000 
  4. Staples High School (Team 5057); Westport, Connecticut: $7,500 
  5. Maggie Walker Governor’s School (Team 4892); Richmond, Virginia: $5,000 
  6. South County High School (Team 4187); Lorton, Virginia: $2,500 

This year’s first- and second-place teams were both from the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics (NCSSM), in Durham, North Carolina, coached by mathematics instructor and phenomenal mathematical modeling coach Dan Teague. NCSSM, the first residential public school in the U.S., attracts juniors and seniors from across North Carolina. On the school’s website, Teague discusses the value of mathematical modeling as an inherently interdisciplinary experience.

“Mathematical modeling requires much more than mathematics," he writes. "It requires knowledge of how things work, which comes from the students’ experiences in the sciences, both natural and social, their programming ability, and their ability to write clearly and persuasively and explain complicated ideas in written form. We all share in these students’ accomplishments, because we all contributed.”

Rachel Levy is SIAM VP for Education, as well as an associate professor in the Department of Mathematics and Associate Dean for Faculty Development at Harvey Mudd College.

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