Teenage students leverage math to defeat the digital divide

Teenage students leverage math to defeat the digital divide


March 3, 2021

Philadelphia, PA — In the past year the world has had to face some stark realities. One of those is that there is a gap between those who can use and benefit from adequate access to the internet and those who cannot.

While this “digital divide” has been around for decades, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought it sharply into focus, as many people have seen their work, school, healthcare, grocery shopping, and socializing migrate to a virtual experience—happening within the home, using digital devices. Ensuring that everyone (particularly those in rural and low-income areas) has sufficient access to high-speed internet is a technical, logistical, and economic challenge. It is not clear which among the many ways to access the internet (e.g., cable, fiber-optic lines, satellites, mobile broadband) can best solve the connectivity issues experienced by people in different types of households and regions. What will connectivity cost over the next decade? How should minimum required bandwidth be predicted? What is the optimal way to distribute cellular nodes in a region to maximize access?

These issues and questions were all part of this year’s MathWorks Math Modeling Challenge problem that 535 teams comprised of 2,400 students examined while competing for $125,000+ (£90,000) in scholarships last weekend. A program of Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics (SIAM), M3 Challenge is designed to motivate students to study and pursue careers in applied math, computational science, and technical computing.
During the intensive M3 Challenge weekend (February 26–March 1), teams of high school juniors and seniors across the United States and sixth form students in England and Wales used mathematical skills, research, and brainstorming to evaluate data and propose answers to the digital divide dilemma. Teams had to submit their solutions within the strict 14 consecutive hour time limit, akin to the way things often happen in the real world.

“The Problem this year felt much more relatable than example problems and previous problems because of the relevance of the internet in our daily lives,” says Cole VanDyke, a senior at West Catholic High School in Michigan. “The inclusion of both the United Kingdom and United States was an unexpected twist that gave the Problem more depth and forced a more thorough examination of the data and methods available.”

As Challenge weekend came to an end Monday, judges looked forward to seeing the creative ways teams used data to predict and model the defeat of the digital divide.

“This year's topic touches on several relevant issues we are facing as a global community,” says M3 Challenge judge and lead problem developer Karen Bliss, associate professor at Virginia Military Institute. “We asked students to think about how needs vary person to person and how to best get high-speed internet to rural, suburban, and urban areas. While there's no one mathematical approach that is the right way to answer these questions, I look forward to seeing how the students used mathematical modeling to reach an answer and how what they value is explained and comes through in their models.”

While many students can’t help but be motivated by the chance to win scholarship money for college, many are happy to compete solely because they find it academically rewarding. Some are pleasantly surprised to find that M3 Challenge offers both.

“My team decided to participate because of the scholarship opportunity available to us, but through this challenge we learned so much more about technology and the world around us that the newfound knowledge alone was reason enough to participate!” says Jordan Robbins, a junior at Norton High School in Massachusetts.

After two rounds of judging by more than 150 professional applied mathematicians over the next eight weeks, six finalist teams and three technical computing awardees will be selected to present their solutions virtually to a panel of mathematical experts on April 26. About 50 teams will be recognized with scholarship prizes, with the champion team receiving $22,500.

View the 2021 problem statement and a list of participating teams.

Learn more about M3 Challenge.

About Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics
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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Challenge flyers and documents