Two Student Teams Shine in International Math Contest Modeling Event

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

USD seniors Tim Berend, Quinn Pratt and Riley Evans earned meritorious honors for their work in a COMAP Mathematical Contest Modeling event. USD Math Professor Diane Hoffoss is at far right.USD seniors Tim Berend, Quinn Pratt and Riley Evans earned meritorious honors for their work in a COMAP Mathematical Contest Modeling event. USD Math Professor Diane Hoffoss is at far right.

Never say that University of San Diego students aren't ready for “it.” 

"I like it because of the non-stop sprint to the finish line," said sophomore Nicholas Wahl. 

Quinn Pratt, a senior, describes it as "a high-speed, compressed research project." 

"I really enjoy the problem-solving aspect of it so that's what got me into it," added Erick Perez, a junior. 

So, what is "it"?

Wahl, Pratt, Perez and other students took part in "it," which is the 33rd annual international COMAP Mathematical Contest in Modeling (MCM).

Described by COMAP as an exercise that challenges teams of students to clarify, analyze, and propose solutions to open-ended problems, the MCM attracts diverse students and faculty advisors from over 900 institutions around the world.

Back in January, just before the start of USD's spring semester, Associate Professor of Mathematics Diane Hoffoss had two three-person student teams with a interdisciplinary set of majors — computer science, math, physics, engineering and business — take part in the competition.

This year, 8,843 teams competed from around the world and it ran from 5 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 19 when the problems were first unveiled to 5 p.m. Monday, the deadline to submit everything. Between those times, there's plenty of discussion, research, and teamwork as students divvy up the important tasks. There's also endless snacks like chocolate, pizza, chips and salsa consumed, and other temporary distractions such as listening to music, dancing to Caribbean music and, of course, lots of coffee.

Teams Earn Notable Recognition

Interestingly, both teams this year picked Problem C, "Cooperate and Navigate," which dealt with Greater Seattle's traffic capacity and the possibility that self-driving, cooperating cars could be a solution to increase the capacity of highways without increasing the number of lanes or roads. Real world data was provided to teams to determine patterns and insights upon which they might construct a mathematical model analyzing the effects on traffic flow of the number of lanes, peak and/or average traffic volume and percentage of vehicles using self-driving systems. Of the problems available to all of the teams in the MCM, only 1,527 teams (17 percent) chose Problem C.

What transpired, Hoffoss revealed, is that both USD teams achieved a successful level of recognition. The contest awards in the categories of outstanding winners, finalist winners, meritorious winners and honorable mention.

Pratt, a triple major in mechanical engineering, physics and math, Tim Berend, a senior applied math and business economics major, and Riley Evans, a math major with an emphasis in secondary education, earned a meritorious designation, something only 651 teams (seven percent) attained. Pratt and Berend competed in their fourth MCM. Evans, friends with Pratt and Berend since they were all in a first-year Calculus class taught by Hoffoss, participated just this year.

"It was tougher than I expected, but it helped being on the same team with Quinn and Tim who had done it before," Evans said.

Wahl, a computer science major considering double majoring in math, Perez, a computer science major and business administration minor, and Tim Holdsworth, a math major, earned honorable mention. There were 3,540 teams worldwide, 40 percent, who were honorable mention. For Wahl, the only member of his group to participate in MCM before, this was his second honorable mention in as many years.

"It's only a long weekend instead of doing research all semester. You start it and before you know it, it's finished. I like the chance to think quickly and produce a solution that's thorough," Wahl said.

Creating a Solution

Wahl and Perez liked tackling a problem involving a current topic like self-driving cars. Being computer science students, they wrote data programming and Holdsworth, who has taken a probability course, used his expertise to determine how many cars were on the road next to each other. Both Wahl and Perez said "it was not a super math intensive" problem and that they used multiplication and basic arithmetic to reach their desired formula.

Meanwhile, Pratt, Berend and Evans took a deeper approach. Their experience and familiarity with how to best organize themselves in the allotted amount of time was key. They finished early enough to do necessary editing before submitting their work. The work that each team submitted was a one-page summary, a one-to-two-page letter to the Governor's office in Washington, and a proposed solution that could not exceed 20 pages.

"Almost from a liberal arts perspective, having people with diversity of views and a good writer were important. Riley had already written a pretty substantial intro and research background by the time we finished the math and Tim had done research on time-varying statistics for when traffic is worse and when it isn't," Pratt said.

The team said the data provided was good at the start, but Berend did plenty of additional research. Their assumptions involved the clustering of cars, but they looked closely at the tendencies and differences between self-driving cars and regular car drivers whose movements are more unpredictable.

"We came up with nine different behavioral models in terms of deciding how the self-driving cars would behave in the presence of regular car drivers. The one we landed on was a compromise of all of them mixed together," Pratt said.

The meritorious recognition was fitting for two of Hoffoss' most experienced MCM participants.

"They've competed a lot and have turned in some really solid solution attempts," she said. "I'm so grateful that before they graduate they were able to place so highly in this competition."

Career Preparation Via Problem-Solving

Both teams spoke to the importance of this competition as it relates to career aspirations.

Berend felt that having math models aiding policy implications was important. "That’s where the industry is going, so proving that you know how to do that is a perfect resume builder."

Perez, while only doing the MCM once, said he’ll definitely be part of it again in 2018 when he’s a senior.

"It's a really good experience to have under your belt and get these problems and do what you can with them. Especially for me, I'm going into the job market this year, doing internship interviewing for computer science and the actual interviews will involve problem-solving questions to see what I can do on the spot."

"It” is what can help them prepare for the next steps in their future. 

— Ryan T. Blystone


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