UW News

April 14, 2005

UW math ‘magician’ scores another win in international competition

If you ask about Professor Jim Morrow at the UW math department, people tend to use words like “amazing,” “astounding” and “wizard.”

It’s no wonder. A student trio he coached has taken top honors in a highly competitive global math competition, keeping pace with such math powerhouses as MIT, Harvard and the University of California at Berkeley.

Yet again.

This is the fifth such win for Morrow’s teams in four years in the annual 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 winning groups, setting them on an even higher tier. Another UW team achieved a ranking of “Meritorious.”

“He is a magician,” says Selim Tuncel, department chairman. “He constantly gets comments from around the world. People ask him what his secret is.”

According to this year’s winning group, much of that secret lies in simply being engaged and involved with the students.

“He’s been great,” said Braxton Osting. “He really helped guide us.”

“And he’s very approachable,” added Christina Polwarth. “He’s always willing to help with whatever we need.”

Morrow gives the bulk of the credit back 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. Not just passively, but actively. 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.”

Osting, Polwarth and Ryan Bressler, the third member of the winning team, all seniors, are from the Puget Sound area. Two members, Osting and Bressler, are products of the state’s public education system. They got to know each other about three years ago in an accelerated advanced calculus class taught by Morrow.

That class, according to Bressler, prepared the group for the contest in more ways than one.

“From an endurance perspective, it probably got us ready,” Ryan said. “The class kept us up working late a lot. I remember one week we had two assignments and a midterm.”

Polwarth smiled at the recollection and shook her head. “I could have killed him.”

But all agreed that the class, and others they subsequently took from Morrow, helped while in the midst of the grueling four-day competition.

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 three said it didn’t take long to select which problem to do. The first choice involved modeling flooding downstream if the earthen dam that forms Lake Murray in central South Carolina fails during a catastrophic earthquake. The second asked teams to model traffic flow for a tollbooth plaza on a multi-lane highway and determine the optimal number of tollbooths to deploy to keep traffic flowing. The UW team selected the dam scenario.

“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 a good hands-on equation solver, Bressler said. “She’s really good at busting through the algebra.”

Polwarth countered, “I’m the only one in the group with the patience to do it.” 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.”

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. Again, Morrow’s guidance came into play.

“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 helping to boost the department’s prestige, Tuncel said — mostly in that it highlights the outreach efforts that Morrow makes in terms of the multiple programs he conducts to engage and involve students.

“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.”

More information about the contest and copies of papers submitted by the student teams are available on Morrow’s Web site at: http://www.math.washington.edu/~morrow/personal.html  

Overall contest results are available at: