Connecting math to reality

Connecting math to reality

Moody’s Mega Math Challenge offers students a fresh perspective on applying mathematics

December 14, 2011

Getting students to appreciate math and science at an early age is imperative to making America more competitive on the world stage. Ensuring that they maintain that appreciation and interest through college and beyond is also of growing concern, even among those who show promise through middle and high school.

A recent New York Times article noted that as many as 40% of students who choose STEM majors in college tend to quit the pursuit of these degrees due to the excessive focus on abstract courses, theoretical exams, and rote memorization, with little emphasis on practical applications.

Moody's Mega Math (M3) Challenge is a high school contest that takes a different approach. An applied math competition organized by the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics and sponsored by The Moody's Foundation, the Internet-based contest gives participants 14 hours to apply math modeling principles to the solution of genuine, realistic problems. Past participants have answered questions such as whether the 2009 Stimulus Act would generate jobs in the U.S. economy and what measures need to be taken to reduce the impact of long-term drought in the American Southwest.

This novel method of using math keeps students motivated in the subject, and shows them ways in which they could use it in their lives and careers. "Math often times is learned and used only in the abstract, in classes and even other math competitions. The real-world application of math is lost. This contest is a change from that," Xiao-Yu Wang, a past winner, says of the Challenge. "We analyzed a major political, social, and economic issue through mathematics. It really opened my eyes to the world of mathematical modeling not only in economic fields, but also in other fields such as physical and biological sciences."

Making our younger generation job-ready in STEM fields is not only important for our competence on the world stage, but also essential to a flourishing economy. In an age of rapid innovation, economic growth relies squarely on skills acquired in innovative fields such as science, engineering, and math. A Commerce Department report earlier this year found that over the past decade, STEM jobs grew at three times the rate of non-STEM jobs and paid higher salaries by over 25%.

In order to keep youngsters motivated to pursue STEM fields, mathematics education needs to be made more relevant to them, and must answer the question plaguing most students as they navigate complex school and college math curricula: Alright, I finished these complicated practice problems, now what?

Moody's Mega Math Challenge answers that by providing a forum for students to put these problems into practice--in a real-world scenario, with genuine issues that need actual solutions. The contest awards a total of $115,000 to winning teams and is open to 29 states in the Eastern United States. The top six teams--selected after two rounds of judging--present their winning solutions at Moody's headquarters in Manhattan, and validate their findings by answering questions from a panel of PhD-level mathematicians who judge the contest.

The creative approach employed by the Challenge goes a long way toward keepingstudents interested in choosing STEM disciplines in college and potentially pursuing them as professions. As past participant Dan Strivelli puts it, "The M3 Challenge helped me realize that logical, abstract thinking and problem solving was the career path that I desired to pursue." He is currently an electrical engineering major at Penn State University.

And he is not alone. Challenge participants often go on to pursue degrees in science, engineering, and the computational sciences in some of the best schools in the country, with the goal of choosing careers where they can apply math to real issues.

The Challenge provides the perfect setting to experiment with the idea of pursuing a mathematics career track, and reinforces the practical applications of math in the real world.

Apply now! Registration closes February 24. Challenge Weekend is March 3--4.

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