High school students offer flood of ideas to counter Southwest drought

High school students offer flood of ideas to counter Southwest drought

April 29, 2011

M3 Challenge 2011 Champions: Team members (L-R) Alex Kiefer, Jason Oettinger, Caroline Bowman, Anthony Grebe and Patrick Braga with SIAM Past President Margaret Wright (far left), Moody's Foundation's Fran Laserson (center) and their teacher-coach, Ann Hankison (far right)

Florida's Pine View School takes top prize in Moody's Mega Math Challenge 2011

The 14 hours they spent typing on laptops, poring over data sets, developing formulas, and writing computer programs to come up with a five-year picture of the prolonged drought in the arid American Southwest finally seemed worthy of the effort to at least 30 of the thousands of high school students who participated in Moody's Mega Math (M3) Challenge 2011.

The elation was discernible in the collective beam of the five team members from Osprey, Florida's Pine View School, as they took center stage, displaying their $20,000 prize check, at Moody's Corporation headquarters late Thursday afternoon. The young men and woman emerged as the Champions of the 2011 Challenge, an Internet-based applied math contest, organized by the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics."It was awesome. We are still sort of in shock, I think," said Pine View's Caroline Bowman, describing the moment the award was announced. "It was such a mix of feelings – of course, you're nervous, you want to compete at the top, but at the same time you're thinking you're already in the top six so you cannot be unhappy, no matter what."

"It was a great experience overall because it gave us the opportunity to work with a real-world problem-- to do something that real analysts would do," said teammate Jason Oettinger. "I have participated in other projects that work with math, but nothing to this scale."

Their victory was made all the more special by the fact that it was the school's first time ever competing in the Challenge and that the students had only become aware of the contest two weeks prior to Challenge weekend.

Teacher-coach Ann Hankinson took little acclaim for her team's feat, saying, "I give the students all the credit. All of the kids have their gifts in all kinds of things and they work together really well. They are used to team competitions and they are highly competitive. I knew their various strengths in math, computers, and economics, and it was good to have a team with a variety of skills."

The 30 high school students -- members of the top six teams hailing from New Jersey, Connecticut, and Florida -- who made it to this prestigious final presentation round of the Challenge were stellar in their approach to the problem and the eloquence with which they explained their solutions, demonstrating the versatility and resourcefulness that helped them beat out more than 2,500 of their peers in the 18 states along the East Coast.

The final panel of judges consisted of professional mathematicians Lee Seitelman (United Technologies - retired), Ben Fusaro (Florida State University), Kathleen Shannon (Salisbury University), and David Sprecher (University of California, Santa Barbara – retired). They had the unenviable task of choosing the best among these top six teams who had already proven their merit by rising to the top of a rigorous two-round judging process in which over 80 judges from across the country read and scored nearly 600 participating team papers. After the teams gave 15-minute presentations of their solution papers, justifying their conclusions and fielding questions from judges, the final rank order was determined. Scholarship prizes ranging from $20,000 to $2,500 were then awarded by The Moody's Foundation as follows:

MChallenge Champions, Summa Cum Laude Team prize of $20,000

School: Pine View School, Team #481, Osprey, Florida

Coach: Ann Hankinson

Students: Caroline Bowman, Patrick Braga, Anthony Grebe, Alex Kiefer, Jason Oettinger


M3 Challenge First Runner Up, Magna Cum Laude Team Prize of $15,000

School: Ridgefield High School, Team #538, Ridgefield, Connecticut

Coach: David Yolen

Students: Kimberly Cohen, Allison Collins, Andrew Klutey, Sean Scott, Will Yolen


M3 Challenge Third Place, Cum Laude Team Prize of $10,000

School: High Technology High School, Team #137, Lincroft, New Jersey

Coach: Ellen LeBlanc

Students: Sidney Buchbinder, Stephen Guo, Channing Huang, Matthew Tsim, Angela Zhou

M3 Challenge Fourth Place, Meritorious Team Prize of $7,500

School: T. R. Robinson High School, Team #75, Tampa, Florida

Coach: Judi Charley-Sale

Students: Kennon Bittick, James Gibson, Erin Seligsohn, Steven Seligsohn, Aaron Warwick

M3 Challenge Fifth Place, Exemplary Team Prize of $5,000 

School: Eastside High School, Team #121, Gainesville, Florida

Coach: Carl Henriksen

Students: Peishi Cheng, Yi Fan, Alexander Geoffroy, Hohyun Jeon, Medha Ranka


M3 Challenge Sixth Place, First Honorable Mention Team Prize of $2,500

School: High Technology High School, Team #165, Lincroft, New Jersey

Coach: Raymond Eng

Students: Vinay Ayyala, Robert Hale, Brittany Ko, Neil Rangwani, James Ting


Finalist and Honorable Mention prizes totaling $40,000 were awarded earlier this month to 37 additional teams.

Dr. Margaret Wright, Silver Professor in the Computer Science Department at the Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences and a SIAM Past President, highlighted the event by addressing the winning teams. Fittingly invoking George Pólya, the legendary mathematician known for his mastery of problem solving, Wright quoted, "If you can't solve a problem, then there is an easier problem you can solve: find it."

"That's what the teams did," she said, explaining the essence of mathematical modeling. "You can't solve the problem of water resources, but you can find an easier problem, and you can make a model. You can solve that."

The Challenge this year required students to estimate the impact of the twelve-year water deficit that has affected water resources and power generation in Southwestern states whose sustenance depends on the Colorado River Basin. Students were required to chart out the impact of this long-term drought not only in terms of water supply and demand, but also by taking into account financial implications to the region and political ramifications of water distribution to the seven Basin states who signed the Colorado River Compact of 1922.

"A great discovery solves a great problem but there is a grain of discovery in the solution of any problem.," Wright went on to say, again invoking Pólya.

As the team from East Side High put it in their presentation, "An approximate answer to the right question is worth a great deal more than a precise answer to the wrong question," proving that this exemplary group of prize winners will, indeed, be rightful torch carriers to these great mathematicians.

"A dry topic? I drought it" said the team's introductory slide, and boy, were they right! The six presentations tackled the problem in a variety of different ways, coming up with innovative mathematical models and a host of recommendations for alternative suggestions and strategies.

In a presentation cleverly titled, "Not Enough Dammed Water!" the team from Ridgefield High concluded just that. The winning teams projected a bleak outlook for the region notwithstanding considerable reassessment of water use, management and apportionment over the next few years.

Efficiently estimating the economic impact of the various aspects of the Basin drought, Pine View students emphasized the importance of conservative measures toward agriculture, outweighing as it does power generation and recreation by billions of dollars spent annually. They were not alone in proposing agricultural water consumption as the top priority for anyone trying to address the economics in the region. Teams overwhelmingly concluded that most efforts for conservation should be focused toward agronomics owing to its huge impact.

Participants also offered a variety of suggestions to increase the supply-demand ratio, such as sources of alternate energy, water reclamation, drip irrigation methods, desalination for consumption, industrial use regulation, community involvement, and changes in water pricing strategies.

"The top papers demonstrated that these youngsters are able to combine analysis and common sense, a feature that our natural resources policy-makers would do well to emulate," said Judge Ben Fusaro.

As High Technology High School Principal Daniel Simon said on Twitter, after following the presentations live online, "Our future is in great hands."

While the future of the Colorado River Basin may still look hazy, the future of these bright and talented youngsters is far less uncertain. If their display at Moody's Corporation Headquarters yesterday is anything to go by, the sky should be the limit to their aspirations, while the scholarship prizes they rightfully earned awaits only their decision on where to pursue higher education.

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Challenge flyers and documents