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JMU Students Shine In Mathematical Modeling Competition

By Andrew Molchany, JMU Public Affairs

Four days to complete just one mathematical problem. Sound simple?

Not so for students who compete in the Consortium for Mathematics and Its Applications (COMAP) Mathematical Contest in Modeling. The annual international contest for high-school and college undergraduate students is based on mathematical analysis of real-world problems. Teams have from 8 p.m. Thursday night until 8 p.m. the following Monday to work on the problem of their choice. For most teams, the weekend consists of late, sometimes sleepless nights, and early mornings in order to maximize the amount of time available to work on the selected problem.

"Undergraduate research is more challenging for mathematics. This competition is a way to get our students real world experience in their area of academic interest and stimulate mathematical inquiry."

—Elizabeth Theta Brown
JMU assistant professor of mathematics

Held in February this year, JMU teams matched the university’s best showing ever with two teams receiving meritorious awards. About 800 teams representing 250 institutions from 11 countries typically participate in the Internet-based competition. JMU teams have participated for 18 years.

"The competition is designed for students who are very into their major," said Dr. Elizabeth Theta Brown, assistant professor of mathematics at JMU. Most students who compete are math or statistics majors, though students from geographic and life sciences have also served as team members, she said.

Andrew Chang, one of this year’s JMU participants, said, "It's a fun experience. I had a great time. I already knew one of my previous teammates so it was kind of like a group of friends studying together. … I myself am interested in statistical theory more than application, so this was pretty hard. Unlike theory, there was no definite result, no absolute right or wrong. It was a good experience."

JMU entered three teams of three students this year. Since 1990, JMU teams have received four honorable mention and four meritorious awards. Some of the best results were achieved in 2001 when JMU was the only institution to have two teams each complete a different problem and receive meritorious awards.

The nonprofit COMAP organization works to improve mathematics education for students of all ages. According to the organization, the COMAP competition is designed to challenge student teams to clarify, analyze and propose solutions to open-ended problems. Topics in this year's competition included an analysis of health care system quality; global warming and rising ocean levels; and the creation of Sudoku puzzles.

"Undergraduate research is more challenging for mathematics,” Brown said. “This competition is a way to get our students real world experience in their area of academic interest and stimulate mathematical inquiry."

She said many students use their COMAP experience to find other mathematical contests or research positions that expand on what they have learned at JMU. Other students use their COMAP experience as a springboard into graduate school or employment in a variety of professional fields.

Published May 2008