Students from Uni and Woodbridge earn honors after 36 hours of complex problem-solving

Way back in November, students from University and Woodbridge high schools put their knowledge of algebra, geometry, calculus, programming and other disciplines to the test in the 14th annual High School Mathematical Contest in Modeling.

But this was no ordinary contest.

Organized by the Consortium for Mathematics and its Applications, the über-rigorous competition challenged teams of up to four students to solve one of two real-world conundrums – we’ll tell you more about those in a minute – over the course of 36 consecutive hours. Not only did the teams have to address their specific problem by developing complex mathematical models, they had to submit a paper on it.

Well, the results of that competition came in this month, and it doesn’t take a working knowledge of advanced calculus to know our local participants performed exceptionally well.

Of the 30 Irvine teams that entered, five earned the distinction of “Regional Outstanding,” which is the second highest honor. Keep in mind that only 29 U.S. teams reached this level, and 17 percent were from IUSD. (Feel free to check our math on that.)

In addition, 10 Irvine teams earned “Honorable Mention,” another 10 reached the “Meritorious” level and five earned the “Successful Participant” designation.

Overall, 435 teams from 80 schools participated in the 2011 High School Mathematical Contest in Modeling, according to David Gesk, who organized Woodbridge’s squads. Uni High’s Patsy Janda and Stephanie Chang did the same for their school, and all of the teams received a little extra coaching courtesy of Dr. Sarah Eichhorn from UCI’s math department.

So what were the dilemmas that required such top-notch problem-solving skills?

One asked students to develop a comprehensive 10-year plan for maintaining the International Space Station – complete with costs, payloads and flight schedules – in light of the fact that NASA has mothballed its fleet of Space Shuttles. Students had to factor in a number of statistical assumptions, including the capacity of the space station, the cost of transporting materials into space, the viability of commercial expeditions and the duration of typical missions.

A second, closer-to-Earth option posed a pair of twin scenarios in which a small item had been lost in a park and a jogger had similarly gone missing on a 5-mile run. Again, given a number of assumptions, the teams had to determine how they’d go about locating the object and the jogger, and they had to calculate their chances of success.

Uni’s Janda said the students didn’t know what problems they’d be solving until they signed on to a contest website. At that point, they had only 36 hours to strategize, research and develop math models that would apply. With the clock ticking, students employed everything from algebra and geometry to advanced calculus and programming, she said.

“While most math competitions are geared toward the high academic students on timed problems, similar to a math test, this contest asked students to really use their critical thinking skills,” Janda said, “and students from all levels of academic achievement and grades participated.”

“There are no correct answers to the problems,” she added. “Teams were judged on the basis of how they presented their model, analysis and conclusion in a formal paper.”

Irvine’s teams clearly made an impression. For a complete breakdown of the results, click here.