Thousands of students address serious drought and water-use issues in math modeling contest

Thousands of students address serious drought and water-use issues in math modeling contest

March 11, 2011

Winning solutions will net $100,000 in scholarships

Lake Powell in the Colorado River Basin is the second-largest man-made reservoir in the United States, functioning as an indispensable resource for water and power in the American Southwest. However, persistent drought has plagued the basin since the late nineties, threatening the reservoir and the regions it serves for over a decade. The water storage situation in the area has never been more dire, and U.S. government estimates indicate that at least 36 states could face water shortages through 2013.

This past weekend, 2,585 high school students from throughout the eastern U.S. sought to determine the long-term impact of the current drought on Lake Powell. Participants in Moody's Mega Math (M3) Challenge 2011 crunched numbers, made assumptions, and created math models to investigate the consequences of the drying water resource.

Human demand, natural processes like evaporation, and man-made agents of climate change have led to record low levels of water in Lake Powell and neighboring Lake Mead. These factors have created deficits of nearly a million acre-feet of water per year from the system and have reduced Lake Powell to about 60% of its total capacity.

Using mathematical modeling, students participating in the M3 Challenge spent up to 14 hours investigating the hydrologic and economic effects of the drought in light of political challenges to water distribution in the basin states. Teams consisting of three to five students were allowed to use free, publicly available resources and their collective critical thinking and applied math skills to put together their solutions in the form of a report prepared hypothetically for the Department of the Interior.

Students were asked to model the drought's implications on Lake Powell for the next five years, including its ramifications on power generation. The model was also required to propose potential reductions to the Colorado River, so as to maintain Lake Powell at minimum capacity.

With the basin now entering its twelfth year of drought, these water resource issues are currently critical in the Colorado River region, but are by no means restricted to the Southwest. Changing rainfall patterns, growing populations, rising temperatures, increasing dryness, and poor resource management are all causing discrepancies between water supply and demand in many parts of the world.

This is not the first time that high school students participating in the Challenge have attempted to explore so significant an issue. Last year, they proposed suggestions to the U.S. Census bureau for undercount adjustment and the fairest way to draw Congressional districts. The year before that, participants pondered the effect of the stimulus package on the American economy, and prior to that, they investigated the consequences of using ethanol as biofuel.

The contest now enters its second phase, as more than 80 PhD level mathematicians begin to evaluate student solutions over the next few weeks, choosing the most outstanding for prizes. In the final round of judging, the top six teams will present their findings to a panel of professionals at Moody's Corporation headquarters in Manhattan on Thursday, April 28. Winning teams will receive awards totaling $100,000 in scholarship prizes funded by The Moody's Foundation.

To view the 2011 Challenge problem visit /pdf/M3challenge_problem_11.pdf.

To see if your local high school registered for the M3 Challenge this year, go to: /pdf/registered_schools11.pdf

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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