For lots of people, high school math is about solving equations and memorizing formulas.
For a handful of students at Adlai E. Stevenson High School in north suburban Lincolnshire, math this year has been about solving one of the world’s most pressing problems: the digital divide.
Ten “mathletes” from the school are finalists in the MathWorks Math Modeling Challenge, an international competition where students use mathematics to solve real world problems. This year’s issue: how to get the internet — increasingly essential for school and work — to more people.
“Each year, they try to make the problem relevant to current news. And so, obviously, the biggest thing of the past year has been COVID-19, and doing basically everything from home, on our laptops,” said Praneet Rothi, who’s 17 and captain of Stevenson’s 12th grade math team.
A total of 535 teams from across the U.S. and United Kingdom submitted responses to this year’s challenge. Just six finalists were selected — among them both Stevenson’s junior and senior teams, a mathematically improbable feat that contest organizers say is “incredible.” Submissions are judged blind. Stevenson’s teams were the only Illinois schools to make it to the finalist round.
The 14-hour competition itself took place at the end of February. Normally, teams would compete in person in New York City. But this year, due to the pandemic, Stevenson’s teams gathered in two meeting rooms at the high school, masked and socially distanced.
Students don’t know ahead of time what problem they’ll be asked to solve, though they did get a hint about a week ahead of time, in the form of a haiku:
Access to the world
Speedy versus quality
Praneet said once teams hit the start button on the challenge, the “14-hour timer is constantly glaring at you.” Stevenson’s teams attacked the problem of the digital divide with multiple types of math.
“We used calculus and some equations to model the market for [the] internet,” said Spandan Goel, 16, the junior team captain.
They used statistics to model how much bandwidth households would need.
“And then we also used an algebraic ranking system so that we could see where would be the most optimal locations for placing cellular towers, so that we could get internet access to more and more people across the nation,” Goel said.
By the end of the competition, both Stevenson teams had produced 20-page papers, plus references and appendices explaining their computer coding.
Stevenson is having a standout year when it comes to math contests. The school won first place in the state math competition, sponsored by the Illinois Council of Teachers of Mathematics; first place in the regional North Suburban Math League competition; and now they’re finalists in the MathWorks Math Modeling Challenge.
“A trifecta!” declares Stevenson math coach Paul Kim, who helped students prepare for the math modeling competition by giving them other real world problems to practice on.
“For one of our practices, it was just around the time that they approved the Moderna vaccines,” Kim said.
He asked his students to use math modeling to figure out how many vaccines would be in people’s arms after one month, three months and six months — using data that was publicly available at the time.
“The beauty of the competition is that it’s so open ended, and it invites kids to be somewhat cavalier with their ideas,” Kim said.
Students need to decide what information is available, what parameters exist and which inputs are important, then “mash those up to make a simulation or model — something that can predict, in this case, the number of vaccines that we think will be out in America at different time spans,” he said.
This kind of math isn’t taught in high school math classes, Kim said. It requires creativity and teamwork. Students are producing something completely new, using math.
“If it was a music class, it would almost be, like, instead of playing the music that is set before us, it’s a composition course,” Kim explained. “Like, now we’re trying to create music. You’ve heard all these songs before. You know what you like to listen to. Why don’t you create something new?”
There are no right answers in the contest. It’s the students’ approach the judges are looking at. And the competition involves much more than just math, said Michelle Montgomery, program director for the contest, which is run by the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics.
“They’re not only doing the mathematics — quantifying some big problem that’s presented to them in the challenge. They also have to write and justify and rationalize what they’ve done, so that even a non-technical person could understand how they approach the problem, what they’re recommending and what insights they gained from using their mathematical skills,” she said.
In addition, Montgomery said the competition problems try to include equity issues and inspire students to think about broad topics. In past years, problems have asked students to use mathematical modeling to find solutions to substance abuse, rising sea levels, plastic bottle recycling and food waste.
“I think many more students could love math if they had exposure to problems like this,” Montgomery said, “where they’re really seeing the mathematics in everything around them.”
That’s true for Praneet, who, despite being a stand-out math student from a young age, has had moments in math class where he’s asked himself, “How am I going to use this random formula or this random equation in the real world?”
“This competition really showed me that there is an applicability to what we’re learning,” Praneet said.
All finalists receive scholarship money. Stevenson’s math teams have one final hurdle in this competition. They defend their papers to a panel of professional mathematicians on April 26. Winners will be announced the same day.
Linda Lutton covers Chicago neighborhoods for WBEZ. Follow her @lindalutton.