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‘Over the Top’

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    Stephen Foster (front) with teammates Tommy Rogers (left rear) and Bob Potter (right rear).

Southwestern students take top honors in international mathematical modeling contest

A team of Southwestern students was named one of nine “Outstanding Winners” in a recent international competition. As a result of their performance in this competition, they also were selected to receive a prestigious international award.

The competition was the 25th annual Mathematical Contest in Modeling sponsored by the Consortium for Mathematics and Its Applications (COMAP). Students participated in the competition via computer from Feb. 5-9. During this period, they had to research, model and submit a solution to one of two modeling problems. More than 1,675 teams from 14 countries participated in the contest.

The Southwestern team consisting of Stephen Foster, Bobby Potter and Tommy Rogers modeled  “Problem B,” in which students were asked to design the phone infrastructure for a new country. Students had to consider the fact that many people today are using cell phones and giving up their landlines. They had to address the consequences of this in terms of electricity use, and take into consideration the fact that cell phones have batteries that need to be recharged and that cell phones do not last as long as traditional phones. 

The team prepared for the competition by studying past issues of the journal Undergraduate Mathematics and Its Applications (UMAP), which prints the winning papers from the contest each year.

The 17-page paper Foster, Potter and Rogers submitted was titled “America’s New Calling.” This paper, along with the papers of the other eight teams that were designated “Outstanding Winners” in the contest, will be printed in an upcoming issue of UMAP. Other “Outstanding Winners” in the contest this year included teams from Cornell, Harvard and the University of Colorado.

Foster, Potter and Rogers also won the prestigious SIAM Award in the Mathematical Contest in Modeling (MCM), for their solution to Problem B. The SIAM Award is given by the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics.

According to the SIAM Web site, “SIAM judges are long-time SIAM modelers who are interested in undergraduate education. The SIAM judges choose from among the papers that MCM judges have designated as ‘outstanding,’ usually about one percent of all the solution papers submitted. The judges take into account how well the summary and paper are written, the reasonableness of assumptions, and the mathematical analysis employed. However, they emphasize the development of the model, checking the model for sensitivity or stability, and the testing or validation of the model.”

The SIAM Award includes a $300 cash prize for each team member. Team members also will receive travel expenses to attend the SIAM annual meeting, at which they will be asked to present their paper. This year’s SIAM meeting will be held in Denver July 6-10.

This is the second competition this year that Foster, Potter and Rogers have teamed up for and won. Last October, they claimed the title of Top Undergraduate Institution in the region in the IBM-sponsored Association for Computing Machinery International Collegiate Programming Contest. This contest requires students to use their programming skills to solve as many problems as possible within a five-hour period.

“We enjoyed the IBM competition and were looking for another competition where we could work on problems over a longer period of time,” Foster said.

The Math Department provided pizza to keep the students going over the four days of the modeling competition. They received their problem on Thursday at 7 p.m. and had to turn in their paper on Monday at 7 p.m.

The results of the competition were announced April 3.

“I knew they would do well, but this is really ‘over the top,’” said Richard Denman, an associate professor of math and computer science who serves as advisor to the team. “The SIAM Award was the icing on the cake.” Denman noted that the SIAM Award for “Problem A” went to a team from Harvard.

Denman said the fact that Foster, Potter and Rogers have been working together for several years now solving problems for programming contests helped them in the MCM contest. The three also have been developing a video game that can be used for educational purposes or just for fun.

“This enormous achievement is a testament to hard work and internal motivation,” Denman said. “I have watched Stephen, Tommy and Bobby spend many long hours stretching their abilities in mathematics, problem-solving and teamwork, more often than not working on projects outside our usual curriculum. They each bring a unique set of abilities to the table, and they parlay those abilities into a synergistic process that, when applied with good old-fashioned elbow grease, produces results that consistently amaze me.”

Rogers is a junior majoring in math and computer science. Foster is a senior majoring in computer science and philosophy, and Potter is a senior majoring in political science.

For more information on the Mathematical Contest in Modeling, visit http://www.comap.com/undergraduate/contests/mcm/contests/2009/results/

For more information on the SIAM Award in the Mathematical Contest in Modeling, visit http://www.siam.org/prizes/sponsored/modeling.php

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