Winning teams in high school math competition conclude ethanol is not the answer

Winning teams in high school math competition conclude ethanol is not the answer

May 1, 2008

While the debate rages about the replacement of gasoline with ethanol as a viable solution to our country's dependence on fossil fuels, the top six teams in the Moody's Mega Math Challenge overwhelmingly concluded that, from a mathematical perspective, the answer is NO. High school juniors and seniors presented their solutions and justified their conclusions in 15-minute presentations on Wednesday, April 30, at Moody's Corporation headquarters in Manhattan, before being awarded scholarship prizes ranging from $2,500 to $20,000 for their efforts. The top-winning team, from High Technology High School in New Jersey, concluded that, in addition to the negative economic and environmental implications of replacing gasoline with ethanol, the plan would not be cost effective until oil prices reached over $233 per barrel. They also found that corn-derived ethanol is not the best alternative form of energy, suggesting that nuclear power may actually be a better alternative for attaining national energy independence.

High Technology High School, who placed in the top six the past two years, finally came away with the top award; its four team members will share $20,000 in scholarship prizes. "I though it was incredible how they came up with the problem. It was a very good question, very specific," said Jason Zukus, a junior from High Technology. "After we wrote this paper we started hearing in the news about the food riots, the law of unintended consequences, and the effects on third-world countries, and it was like, this is a really big problem, this is real."

After giving their PowerPoint presentations and answering questions from a panel of Ph.D.-level applied mathematicians, the 27 students from Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Rhode Island, dressed neatly in professional attire, milled around, anxiously awaiting the final results. Many reflected on the 14 hours they spent working on the problem back in early March, while some reconnected with students from other schools. "I actually thought we were going to support it [ethanol as a replacement for gasoline], but we ended up doing the opposite. We deducted that it's not feasible to use ethanol. We kind of started one way and ended the other," said Tom Sozzi of second-place finisher Manalapan High School in New Jersey.

Prizes for the 2008 M3 Challenge were awarded as follows:

M3 Challenge Champions, Summa Cum Laude Team Prize of $20,000:
High Technology High School, Lincroft, NJ – Team #128
Ethanol: Not All it Seems To Be
Coach: Raymond Eng
Team: Thomas Jackson, Kelly Roache, Afanasiy Yermakov, Jason Zukus

M3 Challenge First Runner-up, Magna Cum Laude Team Prize of $15,000: 
Manalapan High School, Manalapan, NJ – Team #72
Going Green Does Not Save Green: Corn-based Ethanol and U.S. Energy Independence
Coach: Jessy Friedman
Team: Michael Bacsik, Jephthah Liddie, Joshua Newman, Thomas Sozzi, Kevin Tien

M3 Challenge Third Place, Cum Laude Team Prize of $10,000:
Shrewsbury High School, Shrewsbury, MA – Team #178
Unintended Consequences: The Ethanol Corn-Nundrum
Coach: Catherine McDonough
Team: Anand Desai, Ruby Lee, Shengzhi Li, Anirvan Mukherjee, Lingke Wang

M3 Challenge Fourth Place, Meritorious Team Prize of $7,500:
Holmdel High School, Holmdel, NJ – Team #198
The Hidden Costs of Ethanol
Coach: Josephine Blaha
Team: Eric Chung, Alaap Parikh, Ashutosh Singhal

M3 Challenge Fifth Place, Exemplary Team Prize of $5,000:
Hunterdon Central Regional High School, Flemington, NJ – Team #141
Ethanol: The Future of America's Energy Independence?
Coach: David Gelb
Team: Brandon Comella, Gawain Lau, Kelvin Mei, Nevin Raj, Yiwen Zhan

M3 Challenge Sixth Place, First Honorable Mention Team Prize of $2,500:
The Wheeler School, Providence, RI – Team #175
Ethanol - Too Good To Be True?
Coach: George Lewis
Team: Brett Musco, Cameron Musco, Christopher Musco, Christopher Shaw, Karan Takhar

Students representing the following five schools received Honorable Mention awards in the amount of $1,000 per team: High Technology High School, Lincroft, NJ – Team #194; Manalapan High School, Manalapan, NJ – Team #73; Staples High School, Westport, CT – Team #65; West Windsor-Plainsboro High School North, Plainsboro, NJ – Team #94; West Windsor-Plainsboro High School South, Princeton Junction, NJ – Team #180.

In early March, over 250 teams from lower New Hampshire to Wilmington, Delaware, submitted viable solutions to the 2008 Challenge problem, Energy Independence Meets the Law of Unintended Consequences. Student teams were required to address issues associated with increased corn-derived ethanol production and fuel substitution and relate these matters to dramatic and unanticipated rises in farm commodity pricing, the future of food supplies in developing nations, the effect on carbon dioxide emissions, and the cost-effectiveness of producing ethanol. Teams had 14 hours to quantify these concerns using mathematical-modeling techniques, develop and defend their models and justify their conclusions.

The Challenge is an Internet-based applied mathematics competition that requires student teams to solve an open-ended, realistic, challenging modeling problem focused on real-world issue. The Moody's Foundation initiated and provides the funding for the Challenge; the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics (SIAM) organizes and administers the contest. "Our goal, and the goal of the competition, is to motivate high school students to think about solving real-world problems using applied mathematics," said Frances G. Laserson, President, The Moody's Foundation. "We want to increase students' interest in pursuing studies and careers related to math, economics, and finance."

The top six winning solutions, photo galleries, and webcasts of the presentations and awards ceremony will be posted to the M3 Challenge website by May 7.

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About the Challenge

The M3 Challenge spotlights applied mathematics as a powerful problem-solving tool, as a viable and exciting profession, and as a vital contributor to advances in an increasingly technical society. Scholarship prizes total $65,000. The Challenge is entirely Internet-based and there are no entrance or participation fees. Each high school may enter up to two teams of three to five students each. Students choose which day they wish to work on Challenge weekend and have 14 hours to solve an open-ended, realistic, applied math-modeling problem focused on real-world issues. Teams can work from any location they choose and can use any free and publicly available resources, but they may not discuss any aspect of the problem with, or seek help from, their coach or anyone other than their teammates.

The Committee Encouraging Corporate Philanthropy (CECP) awarded Moody's Corporation a 2008 Excellence Award for Moody's Mega Math Challenge, citing the company's "sophisticated giving program that encourages students to develop a passion for mathematics, economics, and finance."

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 Corporation (NYSE: MCO), an essential component of the global capital markets, provides credit ratings, research, tools and analysis that contribute to stable, transparent and integrated financial markets. Moody's Corporation is the parent company of Moody's Investors Service and Moody's Analytics, encompassing Moody's non-ratings businesses. With revenues of $2.3 billion in 2007, Moody's employs approximately 3,600 people worldwide and maintains a presence in 27 countries. Further information is available at

About the Organizer

The Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics (SIAM), headquartered in Philadelphia, PA, is an international society of over 11,000 individual members. These include applied and computational mathematicians and computer scientists, as well as other scientists and engineers. Members are researchers, educators, students, and practitioners from 85 countries in industry, government, laboratories, and academia. The Society, which also includes more than 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

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