Uni and Woodbridge teams solve complex problems with mathematical modeling

Imagine a super-rigorous math competition, one that challenged teams of up to four students to answer a real-world problem by employing complex mathematical models that included algebra, geometry and calculus.

Oh, and give each team 36 hours to come up with a solution.

Math Homework in NotebookIn November, a total of 518 teams from 85 schools — including 43 teams from University and Woodbridge high schools — took on such a task, competing in the 15th annual High School Mathematical Contest in Modeling.

The event was organized by the Consortium for Mathematics and Its Applications, and, some two months later, we have good news to report.

A Uni High team, featuring students Wendy Wei, Thomas Gui, Anna Tao and Sarah Sukardi, earned the highest designation of “Outstanding,” according to recently released results. Meanwhile, the Woodbridge team of Mary Lee, Cy Bae, Chun An Chen and Chun Han Cheun was honored as a “National Finalist.”

Additionally, two Woodbridge teams were named finalists, eight were named meritorious, six received honorable mention and three were successful participants. Five University High teams earned meritorious status, 12 received honorable mention and five were listed as successful participants.

Again, as math competitions go, this one was pretty intense. Each squad picked a weekend in November to get started, opening a sealed envelope with two challenges from which to choose.

One problem related to the reintroduction and adaptation of elk into the Eastern United States. Students were asked to build a mathematical model to determine whether the elk would survive or die out, and they had to come up with a plan to grow the elk population over time.

The second option asked students to look at fluctuating gasoline prices in a major U.S. city and develop a model that a consumer could use each week to determine how much gas to purchase.

At the end of a grueling 36-hour period, each team had to submit a formal paper explaining their findings with research-based evidence.

Junior Anna Tao is a member of the Uni team that earned top honors. She told the NewsFlash that she and her teammates gathered at a student’s home to work on the elk question. The original strategy was to divide and conquer elements of the problem, she said. But eyelids were getting heavy sometime around 3 a.m., so they took turns sleeping and working up until deadline.

“Once the 36 hours were finished, and we reflected on what we did, it was like, wow, look at this paper we all created,” said Anna, 16. “It was definitely a feeling of satisfaction.”

The students prepared for the contest by participating in six weeks of after-school training with the help of Dr. Sarah Eichhorn from UCI’s math department and some sharp math undergrads from the university. Twenty-three teams from University High were sponsored by Uni Assistant Principal Patsy Janda and math teacher Stephanie Chang; the 20 teams from Woodbridge were sponsored by math teacher David Gesk.

It may have been a lot of work, but in the end, the sense of accomplishment made it all worthwhile, said Anna.

“Next year,” she said, “we’re definitely going to be taking part in this competition again.”