PHILADELPHIA- A team of five students from Richard Montgomery High School placed second in the MathWorks Math Modeling Challenge, an international contest for college undergrads and high school students that requires students to use math modeling to analyze and create solutions for a problem.
The team won $15,000, which was split evenly among the five group members: Matt Kolodner, Clarissa Xia, Jack Yang, Laura Yao and Lauren Zhou, who were coached by Richard Montgomery teacher Matt Davis. The money is distributed as scholarships.
The winning team consisted of five students from High Technology High School in Lincroft, New Jersey, who were awarded a $20,000 prize, split evenly among the team. Another Montgomery County school, Montgomery Blair High School, was a semi-finalist in the competition and was awarded $1,500.
“Modeling is a process that uses math to represent, analyze, make predictions or otherwise provide insight into real-world phenomena” is the definition given by the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics, the organization that organized the challenge. Previous years included challenges such as reducing food waste, climate change and urban mobility, to name a few.
This year’s issue was substance use and abuse; it presented three problems for the students to solve.
“In under eight years, nicotine will be more prevalently used than cigarettes,” said Kolodner, referencing one of the most surprising results from the project. Kolodner is alluding to the rising prevalence of e-cigarettes — and the fact that while cigarette usage is declining, e-cigarettes are on the rise and will contribute a larger share to nicotine addiction.
The first problem, titled “Darth Vapor,” had teams analyzing the anticipated spread of nicotine due to vaping over the next 10 years. The second problem, titled “Above or under the Influence,” asked teams to “create a model that simulates the likelihood that a given individual will use a given substance,” according to the Challenge’s website.
Lastly, the third problem, entitled “Ripples,” required the team to “develop a robust metric for the impact of substance use” — to rank the substances in the previous problem.
“The kids were really the initiators of all of this,” said Davis. He noted that his role was only supportive, and the students took it upon themselves to organize schedules and put the project together. Zhou, for example, taught a class on how to use a specific type of modeling software.
According to Kolodner, the biggest challenge was time. The students had to figure out times that meshed with the group’s schedules on top of their regular schoolwork, and usually resorted to after-school work.
“It was a very exciting and rewarding but very shocking experience,” said Kolodner.
The finished product drew interesting conclusions about drug use in a high school environment, the students said. After their simulations were completed, the team came up with these averages: “…of an average high school senior class of 300 students, 49 would use nicotine, 53 would use marijuana, 112 would drink alcohol, and 14 would use unprescribed opioids,” according to their paper.
They also found out, through their models, which substances had the largest negative impact on the United States — nicotine took the top spot in terms of the highest impact, followed by alcohol, opioids and marijuana.
According to the Mathlete competition, the Richard Montgomery student team model was not perfect, and their paper reflected as much — with sections devoted to analyzing both the strengths and weaknesses of their work.
Zhou noted that while the competitive aspect was fun, it was as much about challenging oneself as challenging others.
“I think in the future I’ll participate in MCM as well as do more research papers,” said Zhou.