High School Teams Take To Real-World Problem Solving

May 15, 2006

Four students from Staples High School---from left, Elizabeth Marshman, Miles Lubin, Andrew Tschirhart, and Vikas Murali---were the first-prize winners in the first Moody’s Mega Math Challenge. Shown here with, from left, Moody’s Foundation president Frances Laserson, challenge consultant/judge Lee Seitelman, Staples math department chair Frank Corbo, and Ben Fusaro, also a consultant and judge, the team received a $20,000 scholarship.

With recent debates on the U.S. Social Security system fading into distant memory, a fresh new group of open-minded problem solvers took a look at the situation.

For 14 hours during a weekend in March, 129 teams of high school students worked on a problem that read in part, "Your team has been directed by the Congress to develop a mathematical analysis of the issues, and present one or more approaches that will guarantee the integrity of the system for at least 75 years."

The 572 students, juniors and seniors from high schools in metropolitan New York City, were participating in the Moody's Mega Math Challenge, dubbed the M3 Challenge. Issued by the Moody's Foundation, a charitable foundation spun off in 2001 from Moody's Corporation, the challenge was designed to ensure that its sponsor's Wall Street parent corporation would be well supplied with a crucial re-source: a workforce educated in mathematics, economics, and finance. SIAM, on the initiative of marketing director Michelle Montgomery, worked with Moody's to organize and run the event.

The Web-based competition---all registration and practice materials, and, on the day of the competition, the problem, were posted at http://m3challenge.siam.org
---gave three to five-student teams, up to two teams per school, 14 hours to work on the problem, using any available (non-human) resources. The teams worked at locations of their choice, often a team member's house.

On April 5, at an elegant club a few blocks from Moody's downtown New York City headquarters, foundation president Frances Laserson addressed an audience made up of the six winning teams, along with parents, teachers, coaches, school administrators, and a small contingent from SIAM. Earlier that day, the team members had made short oral presentations and answered questions about the written solutions submitted in March. Judging the presentations were Ben Fusaro, Lee Seitelman, and Jim Crowley, all representing SIAM.

Pronouncing the presentations "dazzling," Laserson said that she "was as impressed by the students' presentation skills as by the modeling."

Readers sensing that this was a venture into new territory for SIAM will be only partially correct. SIAM was approached by Moody's to bring a real-world problem to a modeling competition for high school students, Crowley explained at the reception. "We learned several years ago in preparing our Math in Industry report that success in an industrial or business career requires problem-solving, communication skill, and the ability to work in teams." SIAM has long advocated curricula (mainly at the graduate level) that provide students with these attributes and, consequently, with a broad array of career options. With the Moody's competition, SIAM was extending its interests to an earlier stage of the math sciences pipeline.

"It shows the power of math," Crowley took the opportunity to say, "that it applies to so many different areas---including finance."

Many readers will recognize Fusaro and Seitelman as long-time key players in the Mathematical Contest in Modeling, the undergraduate competition founded by Fusaro 22 years ago and still growing today (as always, the SIAM winners will present their papers at the next SIAM Annual Meeting). The MCM was in important ways a model for the Moody's competition.

The students honored at the Moody's reception had risen to the top in successive layers of (double-blind) judging of the 129 solutions submitted. (In all, six SIAM graders made their way through the final judging of solution papers: Crowley, Fusaro, and Seitelman, with Joseph Malkevitch, Henry Ricardo, and Walter Stromquist.) In their enthusiasm, eloquence, and intensity, the students almost made it hard to credit evidence that U.S. students are turning away from the mathematical sciences. The six teams represented suburban high schools in Connecticut, New Jersey, and New York, as did the five teams accorded honorable mention. Most were public schools, a few of them science/technology magnet schools; the second-place team was from a Catholic high school in central New Jersey. The six teams received a total of $60,000 in scholarship awards, from $2500 up to the first prize of $20,000; each of the five teams given honorable mention received $1000.

The first-place team, three seniors and one junior, was from Staples High School, a public school in Westport, Connecticut. Like all the teams, the Staples students---Miles Lubin, Elizabeth Marshman, Vikas Murali, and Andrew Tschirhart---expressed surprise at the open-endedness of the problem; having worked their way through the practice problems posted on the competition Web site, they had expected a more traditional "physics problem."

In the short interval between presenting their results and learning at the award ceremony how they had fared, each team spoke briefly with SIAM News. Unaware at that point of the approaches taken by the other teams, they explained their strategies; all had begun by allocating precious time (often several hours) to gathering data, learning about the Social Security system. The Staples team vaguely worried that their "conceptual approach" might not fare well against what seemed to be some "pretty heavy math" in other teams' solutions.

Announcing the final ranking of the six teams, Seitelman summarized each team's approach. The Staples team, he said, evaluated the implications of two courses of action that Congress could take: increasing the payroll tax rate and raising the retirement age. Increasing the payroll tax rate to 18% would keep the Social Security trust fund solvent until 2083; an increase to 18.9% would keep it solvent indefinitely. Raising the normal retirement age from 65 to 70--the team's recommendation--would keep the fund solvent indefinitely, given a payroll tax rate of at least 13.7%.

The second-place team, from Immaculata High School, in Somerville, New Jersey---in a paper titled "S3: Social Security Secured!"---proposed retaining the integrity of the Social Security system by raising the age at which a person could retire with full benefits so that the expected payout period would average 12.5 years (the case when the fund was originally established). The team also considered, without fully evaluating, a schedule whereby partial benefits would be paid beginning ten years prior to the full-benefits age. The team members, all seniors, were Christopher Fajardo, Mary Germino, Robert Lee-Own, William Pugh, and Matthew Tom-Wolverton.

"Given only 14 hours and no prior knowledge of the problem," Jim Crowley says, "the students were able to formulate a model, analyze various options, and develop an argument for a proposed solution. I was amazed to see how well so many high school teams performed in the competition."

Staples math teacher William Walsh, who coached the team, made it clear that the experience was inspiring for teachers and students alike. "You made us think about our role as math teachers and as a school," he wrote in an April 7 message to SIAM. "Solving one problem, in one day, with all resources available, is such a fantastic idea. . . . We are happy that we won, but I can honestly say that the experience made a lasting impression independent of whether we won or not."

The well-rounded Immaculata students (each, according to Elaine Petsu, the team's coach, has a serious interest in music as well as a talent for math) see themselves pursuing studies in a range of disciplines, including math, electrical engineering, computer science, and history. Participation in the competition, Petsu wrote to SIAM, was a "validation for these students that doing math is worthwhile." The opportunity to present their solution in New York, she said, was itself a valuable "challenging real-world" experience.

Preparing to present their second-prize-winning solution were Immaculata High School students, from left, William Pugh, Mary Germino, Christopher Fajardo, Matthew Tom-Wolverton, and Robert Lee-Own.

Details about the competition and edited versions of the top six solution papers can be found at m3challenge.siam.org/samples.php.

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