High school students use math to gain insight on substance abuse

High school students use math to gain insight on substance abuse

Teams model future of vaping and analyze use of nicotine, alcohol, marijuana, and opioids in MathWorks Math Modeling Challenge

March 6, 2019

Philadelphia, PA — Americans now have a greater likelihood of dying from an opioid overdose than from a vehicle crash according to a recent report on preventable deaths from the National Safety Council. The U.S. opioid epidemic has created a heightened awareness of the catastrophic effects of substance abuse, not only for users and their families, but also for society.

The use and abuse of opioids and other substances such as nicotine, marijuana, and alcohol, take a toll on our health care and criminal justice systems, our family life and workplace, and many other areas of society. Understanding how substance abuse spreads and why it affects some individuals more than others are important factors in controlling and restricting the consumption of these and other substances, but how do we determine this? That’s the problem 877 teams comprised of nearly 4,000 students examined this past weekend while competing for $100,000 in scholarships in MathWorks Math Modeling (M3) Challenge.

During the intensive M3 Challenge weekend, teams of high school juniors and seniors across the country used mathematical expertise, research, and brainstorming to evaluate data and build a solution. The problem prompts this year asked teams to create a mathematical model to predict the spread of nicotine use due to vaping over the next 10 years and compare vaping to cigarette use, and then to build a second model to simulate the likelihood that a given individual will use a given substance, taking into account social influence and characteristic traits as well as characteristics of the drug itself, and predict how many high school seniors will use these substances. Students were then tasked with developing a metric to measure and rank the impact of the use of various substances. Teams submitted their solutions after working under the strict 14 consecutive hour time limit, akin to the way things often happen in the world.

“It was really interesting to do the research for the problem because I really didn't know a lot of specifics about the topic beforehand, but we found a large database that was helpful,” says Eirene Tomlinson from Oxford Academy in Cypress, California. “Rankings are always going to be subjective but figuring out what criteria to quantify makes you approach the topic from many perspectives.”

As Challenge weekend ended, judges were looking forward to seeing creative, outside the box approaches to predicting and quantifying substance abuse. “The questions can be approached in a variety of ways depending on students' skills and experiences,” says problem co-writer Katie Kavanagh, Clarkson University. “For example, participants could use simulation and programming, probability and statistics, or even algebra to model the number of students who choose to use different substances. We are eager to see how the students provide insight to this issue,” says Kavanagh. “They will offer a unique perspective on what factors are important to consider, particularly at that critical, influential time in their own lives.”

As academically rewarding as M3 Challenge is, students can’t help but be motivated by the chance to win some of the scholarship money up for grabs too. “It's rare to have a scholarship opportunity where you can learn and compete at receiving an award simultaneously,” says Nicholas Dean of Los Gatos High School in California. The Challenge is free, requiring only accessibility to the Internet.

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 29. About 35 teams will be recognized with scholarship prizes, with the champion team receiving $20,000.

View the 2019 problem statement and a list of participating teams, and learn more about M3 Challenge here.

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 using math and to motivate students to pursue studies and careers in applied mathematics and computational science.

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 4500 people in 16 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 14,000 individual, academic and corporate members from 100 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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