Math modeling team takes top honors
Coach Lou Rossi (seated) with Mathematical Modeling team members (from left) senior Matthew Thies, senior Zachary Ulissi, junior Bob Liu and freshman Kyle Thomas (kneeling).
5:17 p.m., May 12, 2008--A team of three UD students took top honors and another team of two UD students placed at the meritorious level in this year's Contest in Mathematical Modeling, the premiere international mathematical modeling contest sponsored by the Consortium for Mathematics and its Applications (COMAP).

UD competitors in this year's event included junior Bob Liu and seniors Matthew Thies and Zachary Ulissi on the Outstanding designated team; seniors Donald Knieriem and Robert Mitchell on the Meritorious designated team; and senior Stephen Johnson and freshman Kyle Thomas on the Successful designated team.

Coached by Louis Rossi, associate professor of mathematical sciences at UD, the seven participants prepared for the contest--a virtual competition that involved downloading test questions on a Thursday at 8 p.m. and turning in written solutions the following Monday at 8 p.m.--by working throughout the year on old problems that Rossi deemed especially challenging.

“The contest has been around for about 20 years, so I give students some examples of past problems from the huge database that I think are excellent,” said Rossi, who has been encouraging and coaching students to enter the contest for the past eight years.

“I will gladly coach any student who wants to participate, but it takes a special kind of student--one with certain academic interests and a good amount of intellectual curiosity and competitiveness--to want to enter, because you're asking students to spend 24 hours a day for four days to work on a very hard problem,” he added. “And while they're working on that problem, they probably do more work than they do in a class during the semester.”

To add to the challenge, participants don't even get the satisfaction--even after submitting their reports and taking top honors--of knowing that they're 100 percent right, because, Rossi said, there's no one answer to the questions. “There's no one technique or definitive solution to these problems, so sometimes students do something very, very captivating that might not get the results they are looking for, but is incredibly interesting,” he said.

This year's outstanding team, which placed in the top percentile, tackled a problem that analyzed the impact on coastal Florida of melting polar ice caps, due to global warming. Given a scenario of a three-degree increase, contestants were asked to chart the impact on coastal areas and come up with different remediation techniques.

The meritorious team, which placed in the top 13th percentile, worked on designing an algorithm for the popular game Sodoku, to determine how difficult a resulting puzzle would be.

“This was definitely a great experience and confidence-builder for approaching future graduate studies,” said Thies, a mathematics major with a minor in computer science, who will become a second lieutenant with the U.S. Air Force upon graduation. “Though not immediately applicable to [academics], the Air Force training to look at all sides of an issue was probably the best contribution I made to our team.”

Liu, who has not yet chosen his major, said that for him the contest was all-consuming. “After the problems are released online, you have 96 hours to analyze and propose a solution to one of them,” he said. “You don't stop thinking about the problem for those 96 hours. You eat, sleep and dream about the problem. We worked for about 10 hours per day for those four days. After we submitted the solution at the very last minute, I worried where we might have messed up.”

Ulissi, a chemical engineering major, said that he saw the contest as more of an opportunity than a competition. “Entering the contest was important to me because I'm not a math major,” he said, “so it got me thinking outside of mechanical engineering.”

The contest, which is open to all undergraduates in the world, ran this year from Feb. 7-Feb. 11, and began with more than 3,800 teams. A total of 1,162 teams actually made it to the finish; and due to the intensive nature of the problems, contestants just learned of their rating status in mid-April.

“Students hand in what's in some cases a pretty exhaustive report
--typically from eight to 30 pages,” said Rossi, who emphasized the important role that clear, expository writing has on contest success. “Because of the way the problems are posed, the writing aspect is absolutely critical,” he said. “If students can't explain what is mathematically difficult about the question, or key issues of the problem, or the steps they took to resolve it, the judges won't get past the summary.”

Like most scholarly endeavors, the margin of glory lies almost entirely in the effort, Rossi said. There is no prize, save for a plaque and bragging rights. But graduate schools and corporations--particularly those involved in high finance--do pay close attention to the contest, and Rossi said that both he members of the winning team already have been contacted by a hedge fund manager.

Article by Becca Hutchinson
Photo by Kathy Atkinson