Einstein Science Reporting for Kids
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27-Apr-2012

Contact: Karthika Muthukumaraswamy
karthika@siam.org
267-350-6383
Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics

NJ students named champions in unique contest that aims to demonstrate real-world importance of math

Winners selected from thousands of US high school students who participated in Moody's Mega Math Challenge to find solutions to key national transportation issue

New York, NY – April 27, 2012 – Math skills plus a creative solution to a current US transportation issue equals a prestigious top spot in a one-of-a-kind national math contest.

That was the formula for success of a team of five New Jersey high school students, who placed first in the 2012 Moody's Mega Math (M3) Challenge, sharing $20,000 from a total $115,000 scholarship pool as well as bragging rights after being chosen from thousands of student participants.

Vineel Chakradhar, Stephen Guo, Daniel Takash, Angela Zhou, and Kevin Zhou, eleventh and twelfth-graders from Lincroft, NJ-based High Technology High School were found to have come up with the most sound mathematical solution to the country's proposed new high-speed rail program currently being debated by members of Congress. The students presented their findings at The Moody's Corporation New York, NY headquarters yesterday, along with five other finalist teams.

Organized by the Philadelphia, PA-based Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics (SIAM) and sponsored by New York, NY-based The Moody's Foundation, the contest drew nearly 5,000 eleventh and twelfth-graders from the Eastern US who were asked to use mathematical modeling to determine the best regions in the country to revive the Department of Transportation's planned High-Speed Intercity Passenger Rail (HSIPR) program – a hot topic in Congress due to the success of North America's only high speed rail line, Amtrak's Acela Express. From recommending the best regions for the rail lines to predicting ridership numbers, cost of implementation and effects of such a program on foreign-energy dependence, teams of three to five students put the problem-solving skills they learned in the classroom to the test.

The contest – designed to spotlight the relevancy and power of mathematics in solving real-world issues, as well as motivate students to consider further education and careers in math – gave the nearly 1,000 teams that participated 14 hours to study the issue in question, collect data, and devise models before uploading their solutions online in the form of a research paper.

"If we won this, it means that these PhD mathematician judges felt that we had a compelling and cogent solution," said Vineel Chakradhar from the champion team. "That says a lot, because while we were taking steps and making assumptions and solving the problem, we didn't really know if we were doing it right, if we were taking the right approach. But that's just an aspect of applied math, I guess, nobody is really certain what to expect or whether your approach is right – you just have to do the best you can with what information you have."

Daniel Takash, also from the champion team, explained: "While delivering the final answer, when I was summing up the total amounts of money, I saw a lot of digits in red – and I became very nervous because I thought we'd done something wrong, but then I realized this makes sense. If you look deeper and deeper, high speed rail is not the wisest transportation choice. In the 1950s we made the decision to invest in highways and airports—that's the infrastructure decision we made back then when Europe and Asia made a different infrastructure decision. This is the path we chose and we should stick to it. It would be prohibitively expensive to change, especially with talk of multitrillion dollar deficits and debt."

Judges serving on the panel to review the final presentations were impressed with the students' performance and character. "The fact that these students chose to spend an entire day working on an academic challenge like this gives me great faith that, given the plethora of choices they will have in the future, they will choose actions that not only advance their own personal welfare but the good of society as a whole," said Judge Kathleen Shannon from Salisbury University.

First runners up in the contest are Connor Davis, Mia de los Reyes, Alyssa Ferris, Sam Magura, and Vitchyr Pong from North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics in Durham, NC, who split a $15,000 scholarship prize. Third place winners are Madeline Jenkins, Samuel Kirschbaum, Joel Sharin, Steven Tang, and Sorin Vatasoiu from Nashoba Regional High School in Bolton, MA, who shared a $10,000 in scholarship funds. Teams from Pine View School, Florida; Staples High School, Connecticut; and Hunterdon Central Regional High School, New Jersey, landed fourth, fifth and sixth spots, respectively, yielding them shared scholarship pools of between $7,500 and $2,500. (See link below for a full list of winners).

"I think the idea of applying math to real world problems is very powerful," said SIAM Past President Margaret Wright, who is a Silver Professor in the Department of Computer Science at New York University's Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences. "I think the fact that the problems are simplified and brought down to a manageable level is essential. You can't ask high school students to solve the high speed rail problem, but I think that the value is simply that they get exposed to the complexities and the nuanced decisions – a real world problem is not as clear-cut as a homework problem."

Members of the judging panel included professional mathematicians Ben Fusaro, Florida State University; Lee Seitelman, United Technologies (retired); Kathleen Shannon, Salisbury University; and David Sprecher, The University of California, Santa Barbara (retired). Prior to yesterday's final judging round, the nearly 1,000 student submissions were assessed by 107 judges from across the country, who then narrowed down the entries to six finalists.

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For more information about the Moody's Mega Math (M3) Challenge, visit m3challenge.siam.org. To access this year's challenge problem, visit http://m3challenge.siam.org/pdf/m3challenge_problem_12.pdf.

View full list of winners here: http://m3challenge.siam.org/pdf/winning_teams_12.pdf