A team of five Montgomery Blair high school students is headed to New York City next week to compete in the final round of the Moody’s Mega Math Challenge, a national competition where juniors and seniors apply math and creative-thinking skills to solve complex, real-world challenges.
In the previous round, the Blair team — made up of Eshan Tewari, James Vinson, Andrew Komo, Siddharth Taneja and Annie Zhao — spent 14 hours one weekend developing a mathematical model for the National Park Service to address sustainability and growth challenges at five national parks. Out of 1,100 teams that competed, the Blair team was chosen as one of six finalists.
The six teams will present their final papers to a judging panel of Ph.D.-level mathematicians in New York on April 24, where judges will decide which teams place in the competition and will award $150,000 worth of scholarships.
The challenge problem Blair students worked on dealt with the effects of climate change on National Park Service land. The team was asked to create a mathematical model that predicted the risks from rising sea levels and had to assign a single vulnerability score for each park according to the severity and likelihood of climate-related events.
“We first figured out how temperature was going to increase over time,” Vinson said. “Using that, we calculated how sea levels would rise at each of the five national parks. We then compared the predicted sea level rise we got from our model to the actual topography of the region and rated each of the national parks as either low-risk, medium-risk, or high-risk based on how likely they were to undergo flooding, erosion and other phenomena.”
They concluded that Padre Island in Texas and Cape Hatteras in North Carolina were very likely to suffer erosion and were most vulnerable to rising sea levels.
This is the second year in a row that Blair has sent a team to the final round. Last year, both Vinson and Tewari participated on the team as juniors, and worked on a problem forecasting the future of the rideshare industry.
Tewari said they learned from the previous competition to devote more time to crafting a clear and cohesive paper. Last year’s paper was a mess, he said, and the paper they submitted this year will be much better for judges to read. Tewari and Vinson fulfilled similar roles on the team last year and said they were able to effectively dole out responsibilities among the five students.
The Moody’s Mega Math Challenge was created in 2006 to highlight the possibilities of using math to address real-world concerns and to give high school students a taste of the work they could encounter in math-based careers.
While Tewari will be studying data science at Harvard and Vinson will be studying chemistry at Cal Tech when they begin college next fall, both students appreciate how the competition explores real-world challenges and tests their math skills from a perspective of process and problem solving rather than final correctness.
“I think something that’s really unique about the Moody’s Math Challenge is that we’re not really working towards an absolute, right-or-wrong answer,” Tewari said. “Instead, the competition is primarily concerned with how we think and how we arrive at the answers. We have a lot more freedom to explore ideas and put together all the math concepts that we’ve learned to date.”
The five other teams competing with the Blair squad in New York City are from New Jersey, Massachusetts, Illinois, North Carolina and Georgia.
The students’ coach, Blair math teacher Will Rose, has sponsored teams for the past seven years and gives all the credit of the team’s success to the students.
“My role is to advise from afar in advance,” Rose said. “These particular students probably know more about math modeling that I do.”
When asked about their expectations for the final round in New York, Tewari admits that the team faces strong competition but remains confident in their prospects of nabbing first place.
“We’re going to win,” he says. “We’re coming back this year with a vengeance.”