UW News

April 13, 2005

UW team takes top honors in international math contest fourth year straight

A team of three University of Washington undergraduates has taken top honors in an intensely competitive international math contest, putting the university in the winner’s bracket for the fourth year in a row.

The students, all local and most products of the state’s public education system, kept pace with such math powerhouses as MIT, Harvard and the University of California at Berkeley in the 2005 Mathematical Contest in Modeling, sponsored by the Consortium for Mathematics and its Applications.

Of 828 teams competing, the UW team was one of just 13 judged as Outstanding Winners. The UW students also received an award from the Institute for Operations Research and Industrial and Applied Mathematics, given to the best of the winners, setting them on an even higher tier. Another UW team achieved a ranking of Meritorious.

“It’s fantastic news,” said Selim Tuncel, chairman of the UW math department. “This is an incredible run.”

The mastermind behind the winning streak is Jim Morrow, a professor in the department who coaches the teams and works with students in a number of outreach programs.

“He is a magician,” Tuncel said. “He constantly gets comments from around the world. People ask what his secret is.”

Morrow gives the bulk of the credit to the students.

“These kids just come with a good attitude,” he said. “I really like working with these students, who love mathematics and want to do mathematics. I enjoy watching them develop, and perhaps having some effect on them. I know they are going to develop and improve — I don’t have to make them improve.”

Members of the winning team, Braxton Osting, Christina Polwarth and Ryan Bressler, all seniors, said they became acquainted about three years ago in an accelerated advanced calculus class taught by Morrow. They added that his open-door policy and guidance were indispensable to their success.

The contest began at 5 p.m. on Feb. 3, when officials posted two problems on the Web. The teams had until 5 p.m. Feb. 7 to select one of the two, devise a solution, write it up and submit it. Morrow arranged for the teams to have 24-hour computer access and a comfortable place to work, but couldn’t otherwise help beyond rallying the students’ spirits as the sustained effort took its toll.

Participants say the experience involved little sleep and a lot of caffeine.

“Coffee was our friend,” Polwarth said. Her teammates laughed.

“On the second night, we took a break and went to Starbucks right as it was closing,” Bressler said. “Christina got five shots of espresso.”

“Four,” Polwarth interjected. “I think it was just four.”

The team members said it didn’t take long to select which problem to do. The first choice involved modeling flooding downstream if an earthen dam in South Carolina failed during a catastrophic earthquake. The second asked teams to model traffic flow on a multi-lane toll highway and determine how many tollbooths to deploy. The team picked the former.

“Part of it, I think, was so we could refer to it as ‘the damn problem,'” quipped Bressler. “But I think we also decided we wanted to challenge ourselves more.”

“It did sound more interesting,” Osting agreed.

One of the strengths of the team was the varied talents of its members, Polwarth said. Her teammates are good at grasping the overall scenario and deciding what direction to take.

And Polwarth is an adept hands-on equation solver, Bressler said. “She’s really good at busting through the algebra.”

“I’m the only one in the group with the patience to do it,” Polwarth countered. She added that Osting and Bressler’s outdoorsman tendencies helped as well. The pair rock-climb together, and also enjoy kayaking.

“We went to our kayaking data to calculate the river flow,” Osting said.

“We know all the Web sites to go to for that,” Bressler added.

“I was in awe of their knowledge,” Polwarth said. “I don’t go outdoors that much. I’m more of a coffee shop person.”

The team constructed a digital model of the river valley to gauge the downstream flow, and used a wave model to determine how far the water would go if the dam failed.

In the end, they finished the mathematical portion of the task with five hours to spare, then had to push hard to write it up. The conclusion? Flood levels wouldn’t reach the state capital building in nearby Columbia, S.C., but intrusion into tributaries would be significant and damage to low-lying areas would be severe.

Again, Morrow’s guidance came into play during those last hours.

“They are all also very good writers,” Morrow said, adding that it’s a skill he tries to stress as necessary to his students. “You can be a very good mathematician, but if you can’t explain what you did that’s a big handicap.”

The winning streak is boosting the department’s prestige, Tuncel said — mostly in highlighting Morrow’s student outreach efforts.

“We had our 10-year review this year, and the group that made the site visit stressed how unusual it is for a large university to have the level of closeness and involvement that we have here,” he said. “They made it clear that there is nothing like it anywhere else in the country.”

At the end of the exit interview, he added, one of the visitors suggested cloning Morrow. Tuncel pondered the sentiment, but decided that wouldn’t be enough, at least not right away.

“Jim has been doing this for 20 years, going over and above the kind of involvement that comes with just teaching,” he said. “It has taken time to build this level of rapport and involvement. I think it has been a lot of hard work, and we’re just seeing the results now.”


For more information, contact Morrow at (206) 543-1161 or morrow@math.washington.edu, or Tuncel at (206) 543-1150 or chair@math.washington.edu.

Contest results and solutions the UW teams devised are available on Morrow’s Web page at: http://www.math.washington.edu/~morrow/mcm/mcm.html.