The 1998 Mathematical Contest in Modeling

November 16, 1998


MCM creator and founding director Ben Fusaro (left) and SIAM judge Jerry Griggs (right) congratulate the team named the SIAM winner for the discrete problem in the 1998 Mathematical Contest in Modeling-(left to right) Aaron Archer, Brian Johnson, and Andrew Hutchins, of Harvey Mudd College-after their presentation on grade inflation at the 1998 SIAM Annual Meeting in Toronto.

B.A. Fusaro

The Mathematical Contest in Modeling swung into its 14th year with a field of more than 470 teams of undergraduates. Each year, MCM challenges teams of three undergraduates to solve a realistic continuous or discrete problem over a long weekend. In this year's contest, the continuous problem dealt with MRI scanning, and the discrete problem with grade inflation. About 60% of the teams chose to work on the discrete problem.

The continuous problem required the design of an algorithm for use with magnetic resonance imagers. Students working on this problem had to find a solution that would produce plane sections of three-dimensional arrays, preserving gray-scale, and output the density of the scanned object over a selected plane. This problem was contributed by SIAM member Yves Nievergelt (Eastern Washington University).

The grade-inflation problem required the construction of an algorithm that would produce a fair class ranking of scores tightly clustered at the upper end. It also called for the design of datasets to test the algorithm. That problem was contributed by Dan Zwillinger of Aztec Associates and CRC.

Judges Name SIAM Winners
Two of the MCM teams were designated as SIAM winners and were invited to present their papers in Toronto in July, at the 1998 SIAM Annual Meeting.
SIAM judges Mark Levinson (Edmonds, Washington) and Debbie Levinson (Colorado College) designated the team from Macalester College as a SIAM winner for a solution to the MRI-scanning problem. The members of the Macalester team were Paul Cantrell, Tama Nemeth-Csori, and Nicholas Weininger; the team faculty adviser was Karla Ballman.

SIAM judges Jerry Griggs (University of South Carolina) and Catherine Roberts (Northern Arizona University) named the team from Harvey Mudd College as a SIAM winner for its solution to the grade-inflation problem. The Harvey Mudd team members were Aaron Archer, Andrew Hutchings, and Brian Johnson; the team's faculty adviser was Ran Libeskind-Hadas.

At a minisymposium in Toronto, the Harvey Mudd team gave an expert and polished presentation, in which they noted that ranking students by grade point average gives poor results, especially when the average grade is A- (the case at one well-known university). They used the instructors' grade histories to offset any bias due to harshness or leniency. The individually modified grades transformed a university grade average of A- to B-. (See Barry Cipra's report on the team's solution on page 3 in this issue.)

The Macalester team was not able to attend the meeting; however, each team earned a custom-designed certificate for being named a SIAM winner. Each team member also received a $300 cash prize and a three-year SIAM membership.
After the team from Harvey Mudd had made its presentation and received its certificate in Toronto, a new audience bustled into the room expecting to hear the Macalester team give its paper. Disappointed, a member of the audience suggested that the Harvey Mudd team make its presentation a second time. The three students looked puzzled for a few seconds but then good-naturedly agreed, and repeated their performance!

In addition to the SIAM awards, four of the MRI-scanning papers and three of the grade-inflation papers were judged to be of such high caliber that they will be published in the Fall 1998 issue of The UMAP Journal. (MCM papers are kept anonymous at every stage of the judging process.) The teams that received this recognition for their solutions to the MRI-scanning problem are from Eastern Oregon University, Harvey Mudd College, Macalester College, and Tsinghua University (Beijing). Those recognized for their work on the grade-inflation problem are from Duke University, Harvey Mudd College, and Stetson University.

SIAM invites mathematicians to volunteer as SIAM judges for MCM, in 1999 or in the future. The judging traditionally takes place at Harvey Mudd College over a three-day weekend in mid-March; commitments to serve as judges are usually for two years but can be extended to three. Prospective judges, who are chosen by the SIAM Education Committee, should be SIAM members who have some experience in judging the work of undergraduates. "Although some of the judging can be intense," says Ben Fusaro, the creator and founding director of MCM, "everyone seems to enjoy the experience." With financial support from SIAM, COMAP, MCM's sponsoring institution, usually provides judges with a modest honorarium and expenses.

B.A. Fusaro, professor emeritus at Salisbury State University in Maryland, is currently a visiting professor at Florida State University in Tallahassee. According to Fusaro, the concept of an "Applied Putnam" was originally presented in a SIAM Education Committee meeting. The contest is currently directed by Frank Giordano, an associate director at COMAP.


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