Plastic problem payoff for STEM savvy students

Plastic problem payoff for STEM savvy students

Minnesota team nabs $20K with math-based solution to recycling dilemma

April 30, 2013

Wayzata High School team from Plymouth, Minnesota, is Champion in Moody’s Mega Math Challenge 2013 Team members (from L to R) Roy Zhao, Jenny Lai, Amy Xiong, Lynn Zhang, and Abram Sanderson with their coach Thomas Kilkelly and The Moody’s Foundation President Frances Laserson (center)

New York, April 30, 2013 -- Extraordinary problem-solving and creativity earned 29 high school students from Florida, Illinois, Maryland, Minnesota, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania top honors--and top dollars--in the 2013 Moody's Mega Math (M3) Challenge, a math modeling contest organized by the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics (SIAM) and sponsored by The Moody's Foundation.

The champion team of five twelfth-graders from Plymouth, Minnesota-based Wayzata High School will share $20,000 from a total scholarship pool of $115,000, along with well-deserved bragging rights, after being selected from thousands of participants for coming up with the best mathematical solutions to the country's –and world's--growing plastic pollution and recycling crisis.

Jenny Lai, Abram Sanderson, Amy Xiong, Lynn Zhang, and Roy Zhao were named Champions after presenting their findings at Moody's corporate headquarters in New York City yesterday. Five other finalist teams, ranked first runner up through sixth place, also presented their solutions at the event.

The Wayzata High School team's formula for success included stellar mathematical and research sensibilities, a broad understanding of plastic waste's environmental and economic implications, and an unshakable ability to work quickly--on paper and online.

"A big part of our success was our strong mathematical background, in addition to our writing background. We were able to use these skills to create effective math models in our solution paper," said Roy Zhao of the champion team.

"We were very focused on the details of what we were doing, and avoided making generalizations," added his teammate Lynn Zhang. "We worked hard to find specific bits of data to back up our assumptions."

The 2013 Challenge asked participants to come up with a way to quantify the plastic waste filling our nation's landfills, and to suggest the best recycling methods for U.S. cities to implement, based on mathematically modeling the relevant variables. They were then to use that model as a basis for recommending nationwide recycling standards.

The contest--designed to spotlight the relevancy and power of mathematics in solving real-world issues, as well as motivate students to consider further education and careers in STEM-related fields--gave the nearly 1,100 teams that participated 14 hours to study the issue in question, collect data, and devise models before uploading their solutions online in the form of a report to the EPA.

"It's great to see organizations that are going forward with competitions like this to engage students at the high school level and prepare them for STEM fields, an area where our country lacks career focus. This is a wonderful contest to take part in. The students not only used math, they also spoke to the green initiative. It's great to start them young to encourage new and fresh ideas to sustain our environment," said Jacquelyn Pitta of the U.S. Department of Education, New York City, who attended the event.

Prior to yesterday's final judging round, each team's submission was assessed by 150-plus professional applied mathematicians who narrowed down 1,054 entries to these six finalists.

"The excellence in student innovation in this year's recycling problem reinforces that applied mathematics can be used to improve our quality of life and to tackle relevant challenges," said Kathleen Fowler, a professor of mathematics at Clarkson University, Challenge judge, and co-author of the 2013 problem." I was blown away by how the students approached the problem so differently but still developed feasible solutions."

M3Challenge finalists met with Mayor Michael Bloomberg during a trip to New York City Hall (Photo Credit: Spencer T Tucker)

The first runner up team prize went to Jeffrey An, Dayton Ellwanger, Christie Jiang, and Anne Kelley from North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics in Durham, NC, who will split a $15,000 scholarship prize.Third place team winners are Priya Kikani, Scott Landes, Patrick Nicodemus, Julianna Supplee, and Francis Walsh from North Penn High School in Lansdale, PA, who will share $10,000 in scholarship funds. Teams from T.R. Robinson High School in Florida, Evanston Township High School in Illinois, and Montgomery Blair High School in Maryland landed the fourth, fifth, and sixth spots, respectively, yielding them shared scholarships of between $7,500 and $2,500.

"What stands out the most is what a talented group of young people with mathematical skills can do in 14 hours," said M3 judge Kathleen Shannon. "Just imagine what they will be able to accomplish with a little more education and a lifetime in which to tackle the problems the world faces."

View all top six team presentations here:

You can also watch a video of the Champion team's interview with Pimm Fox on Bloomberg Television's "Taking Stock":

About the Sponsor

The Moody's Foundation is a charitable foundation established by Moody's Corporation. Moody's is committed to supporting education, in particular the study of mathematics, finance and economics. The Moody's Foundation also funds specific initiatives in the areas of health and human services, arts and culture, civic and economic development programs. These programs are primarily located in New York City. Grants are also made in San Francisco, California, San Francisco, California; West Chester, Pennsylvania; and London, England.

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 (NYSE: MCO) is the parent company of Moody's Investors Service, which provides credit ratings and research covering debt instruments and securities, and Moody's Analytics, which offers leading-edge software, advisory services and research for credit and economic analysis and financial risk management. Moody's Corporation, which reported revenue of $2.3 billion in 2011, employs approximately 6,000 people worldwide and maintains a presence in 28 countries. Further information is available at

About the organizer

The Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics (SIAM), headquartered in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, is an international society of over 14,000 individual members, including applied and computational mathematicians and computer scientists, as well as other scientists and engineers. Members from 85 countries are researchers, educators, students, and practitioners in industry, government, laboratories, and academia. The Society, which also includes nearly 500 academic and corporate institutional members, 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. SIAM provides many opportunities for students including regional sections and student chapters. Further information is available at

[Reporters are free to use this text as long as they acknowledge SIAM ]

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