Monday, May 11, 2009

The Poetry of Logical Ideas

Pure mathematics is, in its way, the poetry of logical ideas.
~Albert Einstein

Some of you might remember that I produced a story about the 2008 Moody’s Mega Math Challenge for a recent episode of Classroom Close-up, NJ. The M3 Challenge is a competition for high school juniors and senior where teams use applied mathematics to tackle real-world problems ranging from social security to the environment to the economy. The contest is sponsored by the Moody’s Foundation and the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics (SIAM). It’s kind of like the 48-hour film project of math contests except instead of making a movie in two days, teams get 14 hours to analyze a problem, come up with a solution, and submit a paper.

Last year the students were debating the ramifications of increasing production of corn ethanol to help reduce America’s dependence on foreign oil. Initially, I wasn’t sure how I was going to make a compelling five-minute piece about math, but it ended up being one of my all-time favorite segments (Just ask some of my Downriver friends who were at the bar with me a few weeks ago. I’m still talking about the evils of corn ethanol.) I guess the Moody’s and SIAM folks enjoyed the piece too, because they reached out to me a couple of weeks ago and asked if I could come to this year’s finals and do some interviews with the teams, coaches, and judges.

So that’s how I ended up at Moody’s headquarters in NYC last Tuesday for the 2009 M3 Challenge finals. This year’s problem was just as fascinating as the corn ethanol one. The students were tackling the economic stimulus bill. Would it work? Was it enough? Do we need another? Nearly 400 teams from the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic had taken part and after several preliminary rounds, the six best were there to present their solutions to a panel of judges.

I can’t even begin to summarize the incredible amount of research and problem solving that teams put into answering these questions. It’s even more impressive when you realize they did most of the work in just 14 hours. In the end it seemed like most of them thought the bill was going to help, but more money would be needed to achieve the plan’s goals. It was fascinating to see how each team came up with a different mathematical model to answer the questions and how they calculated where spending money would have the greatest impact.

Before and after the presentations, the camera crew and I hustled around to talk to the participants about the competition, their solutions, and applied mathematics in general. Just like the previous year, I was really impressed with the students. I think one of the judges I spoke to put it best when he said that aside from the students’ math skills, the thing he was most impressed by was their confidence and poise in front of the judges. Likewise for their interview skills.

Needless to say, I really enjoyed meeting and talking to everyone involved in this year’s competition. I suppose I’ll be spending 2009 chatting people’s ears off about economics, but I can’t wait to see what problem the contestants tackle next year.