Moody’s Mega Math Challenge: a different kind of math contest

Moody’s Mega Math Challenge: a different kind of math contest

February 9, 2011

Moody's Mega Math (M3) Challenge is not the sort of contest that requires students to go through hundreds of calculations and formulas to come up with a number as the final result. Instead, it asks for a tangible solution to a real-world problem using math.

In other words, the contest asks students to use the math they learn in the classroom--or elsewhere--and apply it toward the solution of a genuine issue, be it social, economic, or political.

Consequently, the M3 Challenge also inspires and encourages those students who don't favor math from a textbook or traditional math competitions that operate in much the same way, testing the same abilities as theoretical classroom math.

Students like Tessa Green, for instance, who won a Finalist prize at the 2010 Challenge.

"I've participated in one math competition since the M3 Challenge, and for the first time in my life, I scored bottom percentile on a test. This is the sort of thing that, I suppose, could result in confidence in my mathematical abilities taking a hit," she says. "However, I've never been that good at traditional competition math; I much prefer problems that don't have one right answer, questions that take creativity and evaluative thinking to solve. M3 was meaningful because it showed me that there's a lot more to mathematics than being able to solve a certain number of problems within a time limit. It showed me a type of math I hadn't been exposed to before."

At Moody's Mega Math Challenge last year, Green and her team from Staples High School in Connecticut spent 14 hours using their math skills in conjunction with other abilities to evaluate the U.S. Census Bureau's figures and methods and make recommendations for the undercount adjustment, the apportioning of the U.S. House of Representatives, and the fairest way to draw Congressional districts.

What Moody's Mega Math Challenge teaches high school students, above and beyond everything else, is that there is a purpose to math outside the classroom: that they can objectively evaluate issues by looking at the numbers and statistics behind the problem and use math to break down concepts and ideas they encounter in everyday life.

Xiao-Yu Wang, whose team from Westborough High School in Massachusetts won an Honorable Mention Team prize in the Challenge last year, is one such student. "Math often times is learned and used only in the abstract--in classes and even in other math competitions. The real-world application of math is lost. This contest [the M3 Challenge] was a change from that. 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."

The experience inspires participants to seek out similar contests that use and apply math. Matt Vernacchia, who participated in the Challenge last year from Upper Saint Clair High School in Pennsylvania, went on to be a semi-finalist at the SiemensCompetition in Math, Science & Technology. He has now been accepted at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "I want to pursue a career in engineering," he says. "M3 inspired me to also take economics courses in college so I will be better able to understand the market behind the devices I will design, and so I can be a better-informed citizen."

It's no surprise that many participants of the Challenge go on to pursue careers in which they can apply mathematics to real issues, in fields such as engineering, biochemistry and economics.

As Scott Yu, whose team from Montgomery Blair High School in Maryland won the top prize at last year's contest, puts it, "Until the M3 Challenge, I had never known about or considered applied math as a career. The competition showed me that applied math is concerned not so much with systematic methodology as it is with critical thinking and problem solving. The flexible discipline is applicable to real-world problems ranging from Census undercounting to global warming, from debt relief to bioinformatics. The sheer power of math applied to real problems motivated me to pursue applied math in my college coursework." Now at Harvard, Yu has integrated quantitative and modeling classes into his economics-centered course load.

In addition, the Challenge inspires students to communicate their newfound power of math to peers and juniors.

"I've endeavored to communicate the value [of math] to students whom I mentor and to high school math stars at the Mu Alpha Theta conference," says Yu.

Ivonne Moreno from Bayshore High School in Florida, also a participant in the 2010 Challenge, echoes this thought. "I help others understand math problems by tutoring and participating in Family Math Night at the local elementary school. I also encourage other students in high school to pay very close attention in math class. Math is in everything we do and the more you know, the better it is for you in the long run."

Moody's Mega Math Challenge certainly goes a long way in illustrating the value of applied math, critical thinking, and modeling.

Be part of it and experience it yourself! Register now! Challenge weekend is March 5-6, 2011. Teachers must register their teams before 5:00 p.m. ET on Friday, February 25, 2011.

About the Sponsor

The Moody's Foundation is a charitable organization dedicated to supporting a variety of nonprofit education, health and human services, civic, and arts and culture programs. Established by Moody's Corporation in 2001, the Foundation's primary area of giving is secondary and higher education with a focus on mathematics, economics, and finance. Further information is available at

Moody's is an essential component of the global capital markets, providing credit ratings, research, tools and analysis that contribute to transparent and integrated financial markets. Moody's Corporation is the parent company of Moody's Investors Service and Moody's Analytics, which encompasses the growing array of Moody's non-ratings businesses. The Corporation, which reported revenue of $1.8 billion in 2009, employs approximately 4,100 people worldwide and maintains a presence in 26 countries. Further information is available at

About the Organizer

The Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics (SIAM), headquartered in Philadelphia, serves and advances the disciplines of applied mathematics and computational science by publishing a variety of books and prestigious peer-reviewed research journals, by conducting conferences, and by hosting activity groups in various areas of mathematics. It is an international society of over 13,000 applied and computational mathematicians and computer scientists, as well as other scientists and engineers. Members are researchers, educators, students, and practitioners from 90 countries working in industry, government, laboratories, and academia. The Society, which also includes nearly 500 academic and corporate institutional members, SIAM provides many opportunities for students including regional sections and student chapters. Further information is available at

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Challenge flyers and documents