High school students consider solutions for U.S. food-insecure population

High school students consider solutions for U.S. food-insecure population


March 6, 2018

Philadelphia, PA — Most people in the United States have consistent, dependable access to enough food for active, healthy living—they are food secure. However, about 15.6 million American households experience food insecurity, meaning they have difficulty at some time during the year providing enough food for all their members due to a lack of resources, according to an annual survey conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service. At the same time, more food ends up in landfills and incinerators than any other single material in our everyday trash, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Keeping wholesome and nutritious food in our communities and out of landfills can help the 42 million Americans that live in food insecure households, but what are the best ways to do this? That’s the problem 912 teams comprised of  4,175 students examined this weekend while competing for $100,000 in scholarships in MathWorks Math Modeling (M3) Challenge

Students share their 2018 M3 Challenge experience.

Using both their mathematical expertise and observations about their own personal choices when it comes to food consumption, high school juniors and seniors across the country examined the problem of reducing food waste. “This year's problem had so many different aspects to it that it was at times difficult to decide in which direction to take it. However, this is one of the biggest parts of mathematical modeling; that is, having to decide what parts of the problem are best for study,” says Owen Travis, a junior at Evanston Township High School in Illinois who was competing for the first time. “We were able to draw on our own experiences with food waste management in order to generate ideas for possible solutions, as well as determine if individual household food-saving strategies were realistic.”  

During the intensive M3 Challenge weekend, teams gather and evaluate data, then build a solution. The problem prompts this year asked teams to create a mathematical model to determine if a state could feed its food-insecure population using its wasted food, and to build a second model to determine the amount of food waste a household generates based on its traits and habits. Students were then tasked with using their models to provide insight about which strategies communities should adopt to repurpose the maximal amount of food at the minimum cost. Teams submitted their solutions via computer upload after working under the strict time limit, akin to the way things often happen in the world.

“Though 14 hours seems like a very long time, the time constraint to finish all three parts of the problem was a bit difficult,” says Swathi Jacob, a junior at Sacred Heart Academy in Hamden, Connecticut, who was also experiencing M3 Challenge for the first time. “This problem required us to use our creativity, teamwork, mathematics, science, and English skills.”

As academically-rewarding as the M3 Challenge is, with scholarship prizes totaling $100,000 up for grabs students can’t help but be motivated by the chance to earn some cash to help with college expenses, too. The Challenge is free, requiring only accessibility to the Internet.

As Challenge weekend came to a close, judges were looking forward to seeing some creative, outside the box thinking on reducing many categories of wasted food in the U.S.—perhaps even some that can be shared with the USDA and other agencies who might be interested in realistic, computationally derived ideas about feeding the food-insecure population. Co-writer of this year’s problem Kate Kavanagh, Clarkson University, commented “Students have access to a wide range of computing tools and data to create meaningful mathematical models, but their personal experiences and communities will also play a key role in what they come up with. It may not even be upper level mathematics skills that lead to the most sophisticated model—but it will take innovation and a willingness to dive into all aspects of the problem. I am so excited to see what the teams come up with, and hope it inspires them to feel as passionately about the topic as I do.”

After two rounds of judging by professional applied mathematicians over the next eight weeks, six finalist teams will be selected to present their solutions to a panel of mathematical experts in New York City on April 30. Approximately 40 teams will be recognized with team scholarship prizes, with the champion team receiving $20,000.

View the complete 2018 problem statement now, and learn more about M3 Challenge.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service provided advice and data pointers for this year’s M3 Challenge problem. 

M3 Challenge is organized by the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics (SIAM) to give high school students the opportunity to answer big, open-ended questions by applying mathematics and to motivate students to pursue careers in science and math.

About the Sponsor

MathWorks is the leading developer of mathematical computing software. MATLAB, the language of technical computing, is a programming environment for algorithm development, data analysis, visualization, and numeric computation. Simulink is a graphical environment for simulation and Model-Based Design for multi-domain dynamic and embedded systems. Engineers and scientists worldwide rely on these product families to accelerate the pace of discovery, innovation, and development in automotive, aerospace, electronics, financial services, biotech-pharmaceutical, and other industries. MATLAB and Simulink are also fundamental teaching and research tools in the world's universities and learning institutions. Founded in 1984, MathWorks employs more than 3500 people in 15 countries, with headquarters in Natick, Massachusetts, USA. For additional information, visit mathworks.com.

About the Organizer
The Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics (SIAM), headquartered in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, is an international society of more than 14,500 individual, academic and corporate members from 85 countries. SIAM helps build cooperation between mathematics and the worlds of science and technology to solve real-world problems through publications, conferences, and communities like chapters, sections, and activity groups. Learn more at siam.org.

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