Local Students Advance To Finals In Major National Math Competition

A team from Middlebury Union High School headed to NYC as finalists in prestigious MathWorks Math Modeling Challenge. A combination of math smarts and creative thinking has added up to a top spot in a major national math competition for five Middlebury high school seniors.
    The students – Ezra Marks, Laura Whitley, Julian Schmitt, Bastiaan Phair and Janet Barkdoll of Middlebury Union High School – have advanced to the finals in the popular MathWorks Math Modeling (M3) Challenge, the only competition of its kind which this year drew more than 4,175 11th and 12th grade participants from across the nation. The Middlebury team will head to New York City on April 30 to compete against five other finalist teams at Jane Street, a quantitative trading firm.
    Using mathematical modeling, the students had 14 hours in late February to come up with a solution to a real-world issue – food insecurity in the United States. The Challenge problem posited that food wasted in households, cafeterias, restaurants, and grocery stores is not “trash,” but might be thoughtfully repurposed. Teams were ultimately asked for model-based strategies to quantify, reduce and repurpose the most food for the least cost. More than 900 participating teams from across the U.S. submitted papers detailing their recommended solutions.
    “Food insecurity affected 12.3 percent of U.S. households in 2016, roughly 42 million Americans. These households had difficulty putting enough food on the table,” said Alisha Coleman-Jensen, Ph.D., Economic Research Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture. “Food insecurity is related to poor health among adults and children, and poorer educational achievement among children. It has real impacts on families and individuals.”
    Organized by Philadelphia-based Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics (SIAM) and sponsored by MathWorks, M3 Challenge – now in its 12th year – spotlights applied mathematics as a powerful problem-solving tool and motivates students to consider further education and careers in math and science. Approximately 37 scholarship prizes totaling $100,000 are up for grabs, with the champion team receiving $20,000.
    In addition to Middlebury Union High School, the five other finalist teams hail from high schools in Lincolnshire, Illinois; Los Altos, California; Osprey, Florida; Lincroft, New Jersey; and Waxhaw, North Carolina.
    “I am really impressed with these students’ work and with how beautifully they function as a group,” said Perry Lessing, Mathematics Teacher at Middlebury Union High School, who coached the school’s students in preparation for the 14-hour challenge. “They did all the preparation for the Challenge on their own and I did not see them at all on the day they spent on the paper. I remember noticing the clock at 11 pm that night and wondering if they'd gotten their paper in. I know their friendships have deepened and that they have learned tons about making a group play to each of their individual strengths. I'm excited to be bringing them to New York and I'm super-curious to hear what they have to say. This is a great opportunity all around.”
    Team member Ezra Marks appreciates the real-world applications of math that M3 Challenge provides. “It was exciting to see how classroom mathematics could be applied to suggest solutions to the problem of food waste in our community and the United States,” he said. “Our team worked well together, both collaboratively and individually, brainstorming as a group, splitting off into individuals and pairs, then reading and editing each other’s work. M3 Challenge will be happy to know we ate all the food we brought with us, leaving no waste on the day of the Challenge! Participating in the Challenge has given us a greater appreciation for the connection between computations and real-world applications of math.”
    For more information about M3 Challenge, visit . To access this year’s challenge problem, visit

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